President Francois Mitterrand declared today that the first meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be held in Paris in 17 years illustrates the strength of France's commitment to the alliance.
The French leader was speaking at a dinner for foreign ministers attending the first meeting of NATO's Council on French soil since Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the integrated military command of the organization. His invitation to hold the Council's spring session in Paris has been interpreted here as a symbolic political gesture during a crucial year for Europe.
Mitterrand said he wished to "restate" France's loyalty to NATO as an alliance of "16 free nations, rich in their diversity." He again expressed support for the deployment of U.S. cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe if negotiations in Geneva over the removal of Soviet SS20s fail.
"Europe needs the United States; the United States needs Europe," he said.
The choice of Paris as the venue for this week's meeting has had the effect of identifying the French government even more closely with its NATO partners on essential issues. French officials insist, however, that there is no question of France rejoining NATO's military wing. The aim, one said, is merely to demonstrate that France is ready "to assume all its responsibilities within the Atlantic Alliance."
It is an ambiguous formula--and reflects the ambiguous relationship France has had with NATO since de Gaulle ordered French soldiers to cease taking orders from foreigners. American military installations in France were dismantled and NATO headquarters transferred to Brussels in 1966. But France remained a full member in name and participated in political deliberations.
De Gaulle summed up the reasons for his action by saying that "if France has to fight a war, it must be its own war." There was always, however, a contradiction in this position. While voicing France's desire for independence and national sovereignty, de Gaulle also recognized the need for solidarity among the western allies in crises such as those of the time in Cuba and West Berlin.
The contradiction has become ever more acute with the growing recognition of French leaders that the balance of power in Europe has shifted in favor of the Soviet Union. To provide some counterbalance, France increasingly has expressed support for NATO decisions.
This process of getting closer to NATO has accelerated since the election of Mitterrand in May 1981. One of the paradoxical results of accepting Communists into his government is that it gave him greater leeway in the field of foreign policy, since he does not now have to worry about their capacity for mischief-making in opposition. The fact that he is a Socialist seems to have made him innately less trustful of the Soviets than his right-wing predecessors.
As France's ties with NATO and the United States have strengthened, so have its relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated. The routine of annual Franco-Soviet summits has ended since Mitterrand came to power. Earlier this year, the Socialist government antagonized the Kremlin by its expulsion of 47 Soviets as spies.
In signing the joint communique on security at the Williamsburg economic summit, Mitterrand accepted the formulation that "the security of our countries is indivisible and must be approached on a global basis." This is at odds with the traditional Gaullist concept of a national defense system aimed impartially at "all points of the compass."
The Soviets have condemned Mitterrand's Atlanticist stance and used it as one more argument in favor of including French nuclear weapons in the Geneva talks. The Soviet news agency Tass said today that France no longer pursued "the independent foreign policy course that was established in the times of de Gaulle."
Tass said the decision to hold the NATO meeting in Paris and recent French military statements indicated that France and its military strategy "are drawing increasingly close to NATO's."
On the western side, there is today a much greater understanding of and even tacit support for France's decision not to integrate its forces into NATO. It is acknowledged that France's nuclear deterrent and conventional forces have an important role to play in the joint defense of Western Europe.
The insistence of successive French governments in maintaining ultimate responsibility for their own defense explains in large part the impressive consensus that exists in France on national security issues.
As the Paris newspaper Le Monde noted recently: "It is not just a coincidence that France is today the European country least affected by neutralism and pacifism while Holland, once ultra-Atlanticist, is the ally that most seeks to escape its responsibilities for Euromissiles."