FORTY-THREE YEARS AFTER General Charles de Gaulle threw American forces out of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, his political descendant, is expected to explain to a sceptical nation today why he is taking the country back into the core of the US-led Nato alliance.
Sarkozy's decision, outlined after his 2007 election and to be consummated at Nato's 60th birthday summit next month, will restore France's voice in the alliance command that de Gaulle expelled from its Paris headquarters in 1966, along with 100,000 French-based US personnel.
The French military are delighted. They look forward to raising their Nato command contingent from 100 to 800 and taking up the two top posts that Washington has allocated France: The Allied Command Transformation (ACT), the future strategy unit, in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Lisbon command, which is in charge of Nato's rapid reaction force.
On the political front, however, critics say that Mr Sarkozy is renouncing an independent status that was followed by French presidents of all stripes since de Gaulle. Even members of his own Gaullist camp are accusing him of selling out a cherished heritage.
Rejoining Nato's military structure would mean giving up “an element of our identity”, said François Bayrou, the centrist who came third in the 2007 presidential elections.
Dominique de Villepin, a former Gaullist Prime Minister, enemy of Mr. Sarkozy and fan of Napoleon, says that “closing ourselves into the 'Western family' would be to shrink our country, a renunciation of our diplomatic calling”. President Chirac's success in rallying the world against the US-led Iraq invasion would have been impossible if France had been a full Nato member, he said.
Younger French people may find it unimaginable but American forces were part of the landscape from 1944 to 1967, admired and envied, especially in the 29 base towns, where they cruised in exotic cars, lived luxuriously and taught local women to dance rock'n'roll. At Chateauroux 10 per cent of all marriages between 1951 and 1967 were between US servicemen and French women. The film star Gérard Depardieu has fond memories of a black American girlfriend of his teenage years.
In a curt letter to President Johnson on March 7, 1966, de Gaulle said that he was not only restoring sovereignty over defence but also recovering French soil and airspace by removing American forces and aircraft. Demonstrations by 20,000 French workers who were dependent on the US bases did not sway the father of France's independent nuclear deterrent.