European Political Science

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 155–164

The ‘Novelty’ of Sarkozy's Foreign Policy Towards NATO and the US: The Long View


  • J F V Keiger
    • European Studies Research Institute, University of Salford

DOI: 10.1057/eps.2010.7

Cite this article as:
Keiger, J. Eur Polit Sci (2010) 9: 155. doi:10.1057/eps.2010.7


Nicolas Sarkozy's reintegration of NATO's military command in 2009 has been presented as radical, given the traditional Gaullist stance of an arm's length relationship with NATO and the US. This article argues first, the difficulty for any French political leader to alter radically the course of French foreign and defence policy; second, that Sarkozy’ policy is merely conforming to a longer-term trend of negotiating between European and Atlantic positions dating from the beginning of the twentieth century.


Sarkozyforeign policyUSEurope

For the Sixtieth Anniversary Summit of the Atlantic Alliance, hosted in Strasbourg/Kehl on 3 and 4 April 2009, France had rejoined NATO's integrated military command, which it had left in 1966 under President Charles de Gaulle. Ever since Nicolas Sarkozy's election as President of the French Republic in May 2007, the question of France reintegrating the military structure had been on the agenda. Such a move had been widely cast as a novelty for French foreign and defence policy and the beginning of a new closer Franco-American relationship. In a number of set-piece public statements, including to the United States Congress in November 2007, President Sarkozy had spoken of France resuming its full role in NATO and renewing its friendship with the US. In the 2008 French Defence White Paper, commissioned by the new President, which sets out France's strategic defence and security priorities for the next 15 years, Sarkozy indicated in the preface how as ‘chief of the armed forces, guarantor of the defence of the vital and strategic interests of our country, I carry the responsibility of the choice of the strategy and the means which France needs to confront, clearly and serenely, the security risks of the beginning of the twentieth century’ (DÅfense et sÅcuritÅ nationale. Le Livre Blanc, 2008). The White Paper dedicates a whole chapter to ‘Transatlantic Renovation’, which sets out how Europe and France should make a fuller contribution to renovating NATO, an organization ‘essential to the security of France’ (Défense et sécurité nationale. Le Livre Blanc, 2008). But so too did the 1994 White Paper, with a section entitled ‘A renovated Atlantic Alliance’ in which Europe and France would play a greater role in NATO in the post-Cold War (Livre Blanc sur la Défense, 1994: 34–7).1 Nevertheless, when on 11 March 2009 Sarkozy announced France's return to the NATO fold, some commentators still considered this move surprising (Simons, 2009).2 In their view, it breaks with what is considered the orthodoxy of French foreign policy, at least since de Gaulle's presidency, that of France maintaining an arm's length relationship with the United States, symbolized by her ambivalent relationship to NATO. However, France's ‘return to NATO’ raises in the eyes of the historian a number of larger issues about the nature of French foreign policy over the ‘longue durée’: first, the constraints on a single political leader to alter radically an established foreign policy trend; second, the continuity and cyclical pattern of French foreign policy over the last century in relation to the United States and Europe; finally, it allows a conclusion as to whether Sarkozy's controversial ‘return to NATO’ merits description as ‘novel’.


In a little known book of essays presented to the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin on his 70th birthday, the historian James Joll crafted a chapter entitled ‘Politicians and the Freedom to Choose. The Case of July 1914’. He opened with the following statement: ‘Statesmen are widely held to have some freedom of choice in making their decisions; or at least this is what is presumably implied in all democratic political theory with its emphasis on “responsible government” and the “accountability of ministers”, as well as in democratic political practice …’. He went on to show in the context of the outbreak of the First World War how, in reality, the freedom of politicians to choose was severely limited (Joll, 1979: 99). Of course, the case study used by Joll was exceptional, characterized principally by fast-moving events and was of a different time. Nevertheless, it might still be said that observers of political decision making, particularly over the short term, have a tendency to overestimate the ability of single political leaders to change radically the course of a state's foreign and defence posture. Elites, businesses, the media, public opinion, collective mentalities, parliamentary majorities, foreign and defence select committees, bureaucratic politics, permanent officials at home and abroad, not to mention the physical determinants of a state's foreign policy, the presence of other states and international organizations in the international system, and the succession of earlier decisions by their predecessors are all part of the constellation of constraints on a French President's freedom to choose an alternative foreign and defence posture, and this more so than for domestic policies. Of course, exceptional leaders such as General de Gaulle might overcome those constraints in relatively short periods of time, but, in general, inertia not momentum has characterized French foreign policy in the twentieth century.

‘A particular characteristic of French policy inertia has been the power and influence of the upper echelons of the French civil service’

A particular characteristic of French policy inertia has been the power and influence of the upper echelons of the French civil service in general, perhaps the most homogenous in outlook of all the advanced democracies. It does not require a Bourdieu to demonstrate that its homogeneity and durability can, in large part, be attributed to the remarkably closed and narrow focus of its social and, more importantly, its educational recruitment. Although permanent officials in the United Kingdom were traditionally recruited from an elite drawn from the major public schools and Oxbridge, the content of their university education was at least diverse in curriculum and method, ranging from degree courses in Classics or History, to Politics and Philosophy. In France, the higher civil servants and members of the powerful cabinets ministériels continue to be drawn principally from that ante-chamber of hauts fonctionnaires, Sciences Politiques in Paris, with an administrative top-up at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.3 What is most striking in this education is the extremely tightly focused curriculum relying on a very Francocentric analysis of the workings of the French state, public service and finance, conforming to a very specific methodological presentation,4 which, overall, has tended to promote a generally orthodox picture of France in the world. This was certainly the case in the first half of the twentieth century and has continued to be so until fairly recently (Keiger, 1991, 2001: 26–8).5 Generations of permanent officials have been schooled in this way carrying forward the orthodoxy into the administration whichever the government in power. Just as in the 1970s it was fashionable to refer to Gaullism having suffused the whole edifice of the state through ‘L’Etat-UDR’, today the Gaullist consensus on French foreign policy has tendrils that reach to the heart of decision making in the Republic. To a great extent, the 1966 withdrawal from NATO's military command is seen by Quai officials as the touchstone of Gaullist foreign policy and any tinkering with it as treasonable. According to one seasoned observer: ‘The idea of the infallibility of General de Gaulle in foreign policy … spread through the Quai d’Orsay’, an institution that he characterizes as ‘a system to the devotion of the General whose thought is consecrated’ (Samy Cohen, quoted in Vaïsse, 2009: 9). Even if, today, there is a new sociology of diplomats and foreign policymakers in the Quai d’Orsay, at least among the younger element, it will take time for the orthodoxy to wane. There will be pressure from these bureaucratic forces on foreign and defence policy formulation and execution, either directly from within the Quai d’Orsay or from the myriad ministries and grands corps with vested interests in France's relations with the wider world. In seeking to maintain the Gaullist status quo vis-à-vis NATO and the United States, they have the potential to limit the President's freedom of manoeuvre and momentum for change, all the more so given Sarkozy's outsider status in not being a member of the grands corps or a graduate of any grande école and the close-knit networks that bind the French administrative elite. It is, as yet, unclear whether he might be helped in this possible struggle by the presidential staff, whose protagonists often hold contradictory positions on foreign policy (Vaïsse, 2009: 558). For the moment, a number of Sarkozy's lieutenants have come to his defence in suggesting that France's return to NATO's integrated military command is only a small step that is merely symbolic, given that ever since 1995 France has been intensifying its working relations with the permanent integrated command, the culmination of which is logically reintegration of the military structure (Poirier, 2009). In suggesting that Sarkozy's move is not novel, his closest advisors have a powerful point; in reality, his latitude for radically altering policy towards NATO and the USA was never that great.


‘Will 2009–2010 merely be a “turning point that did not turn” ?’

Ever since the departure of General de Gaulle in 1969, the question has been asked of each of his successors as to whether they would continue with the main tenets of Gaullist foreign and defence policy, which all have done. Indeed, each of his successors has begun their term of office by announcing an improvement in relations with the United States, starting the process, only to see it stall as their mandate advanced (Bozo and Parmentier, 2007). President Sarkozy announced a similar process, albeit more flamboyantly than his predecessors as befits his temperament. But are Franco-American relations likely to change so radically in the near term as symbolized by France's return to NATO's integrated command? Will 2009–2010 merely be a ‘turning point that did not turn’? Or, now that France has rejoined NATO's integrated command, to what extent is it a ‘rupture’ with the past or simply part of a longer, more progressive, adjustment begun by his predecessors to align France's present-day policy with her strategic interests? Sarkozy himself was at pains to point out on 17 June 2008, when publicly presenting the new French defence white paper, that reintegration of NATO should not be seen as a ‘rupture’ with Gaullist policy. After all, since 1994, France has taken part in NATO's external operations such as in the former Yugoslavia or Afghanistan and has been attending most NATO military committees, let alone being NATO's third largest financial contributor to the common budgets funding Alliance operations and fourth largest in terms of troop deployments with 4,000 on NATO missions worldwide (Vaïsse, 2009: 560; Cameron and Maulny, 2009: 1).6 Certainly, on a material level, the perceived lack of French commitment to the Alliance is outdated and France's level of political responsibility is under-represented in NATO decision making.

Whether Nicolas Sarkozy's returning France to NATO will radically alter relations with the United States begs the greater question as to how radical in reality such a policy will be when one strips away the rhetoric. There is in French foreign policy, as with many other states, over the longue durée a remarkable continuity, which should not be surprising if foreign policy postures are supposed to reflect national interests. Many of the historical ruptures of French foreign policy, on closer inspection, are less radical than they seem. There is a tendency with historians, and political scientists, to analyse events over the short term and to choose, very subjectively, ‘ruptures’ either to fit pre-conceived ideas about individual political leaders or to conform rather too tidily to traditional historical date boundaries for events. Thus, historical analysis can fall victim to watershed dates that obscure historical continuity. An example of such a ‘rupture’ in French foreign policy is traditionally depicted between the ‘aggressive’ and ‘Germanophobe’ foreign policy of Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Raymond Poincaré (1922–1924) and the ‘peaceful’ and ‘flexible’ Locarno policy of Foreign Minister Aristide Briand from 1925, when in reality both caricatures are too sharply drawn and on closer archival inspection reveal much continuity.7 Even a significant date such as 1958 is not the complete break with previous French policy when one knows that, for instance, France's military nuclear programme, the initiative for which is so often attributed to General de Gaulle after 1958, was in reality begun under Mendès France in 1954 (Mendl, 1970: 28). In the case of Nicolas Sarkozy's proclaimed desire to restore France to her pre-Gaullist place within NATO and to improve relations with the USA, the new French President is largely continuing a policy already in train under his predecessor Jacques Chirac (albeit abruptly interrupted in 1996 as a result of Chirac's clumsy diplomacy) and to a degree even under Mitterrand.8 Indeed, as mentioned above, the 2008 Livre Blanc is largely continuing a policy of ‘renovating NATO’ that was a feature of its 1994 predecessor. In this, France's foreign and defence policy is being progressively modernized and aligned with a transformed international context since 1989, and especially 11 September 2001, in which multilateral security arrangements are more appropriate for dealing with evolving contemporary threats than France's traditional independent stance associated with ‘exceptionalism’.

‘… to what extent does collaboration reinforce French power internationally and to what extent does it limit it?’

At the heart of that continuity is, however, the conundrum that France has faced since the beginning of the twentieth century in relation to the ‘Anglo-Saxons’: how much should she collaborate with them and how much should she retain her independence? Or put another way: to what extent does collaboration reinforce French power internationally and to what extent does it limit it? For much of the twentieth century, French power was at the service of two objectives: to limit the German threat and to satisfy the French ambition of playing a world role. But she was sufficiently conscious of her declining power to understand that she could achieve neither without the support of others. After the First World War, France realised that she had two alternative routes for realizing her dual ambition. The first was to gain the support or acquiescence of the Anglo-Americans in those objectives, both of whom became a source of frustration and friction for her. The second was Europe, as a means of limiting German power and as a force multiplier for French influence abroad. Thus, differing emphases on European and transatlantic relations have been a feature of French foreign and defence policy for nearly a century. Sarkozy appears to be merely trimming the course of French policy between those twin beacons and according to prevailing winds.

Much of French foreign policy in the 1920s was about gaining Anglo-American support to provide security against a potentially resurgent Germany and to allow France to play her world role unencumbered. When frustrated by their reticence she sought a European solution. Following the United States’ entry into the First World War in 1917 and the subsequent dominance of the Anglo-Americans in Allied strategy, French premier Georges Clemenceau, together with a number of his closest advisors such as André Tardieu (commissaire aux affaires franco-américaines), came to believe that future international relations would rest predominantly in the hands of London and Washington. During the early part of the war from 1914 to 1916, French leaders had placed their faith in relations with Russia, Britain, Belgium and Italy. America's entry into the war signalled to Clemenceau an Atlantic rather than a largely European answer to France's interests (Soutou, 2005: 752). This explains Clemenceau's quest at the end of the war to seal an agreement between the three major western democracies, which would guarantee France's security vis-à-vis Germany in Europe and thereby allow her to resume her world role. In this, he was momentarily successful in 1919, but denied the prize when in the following year the American Senate refused to ratify the agreement. Unable to revive that Atlantic guarantee, or even its British arm, to ensure French security and freedom of manoeuvre as the 1920s elapsed, France increasingly looked towards a European solution. By 1925, this took the form of the Locarno collective security system for the European continent. Its logical extension was the 1929–1930 still-born Briand Plan for a United States of Europe, foreshadowing the European community, and one of whose aims was to counter American economic power, but which both Britain and Germany opposed. From 1932, at the international disarmament conference, French proposals for a new European security arrangement were blocked by the Germans and the Anglo-Saxons, as were proposals by premiers Tardieu and Herriot for a European regional defence pact to act as an extension of Locarno under the aegis of the League of Nations. Herriot's desire to accommodate London and Washington by making concessions to Germany on reparations in order to avoid provoking US isolationism in December 1932 provoked the premier's fall ‘into the folds of the star spangled banner’ in December 1932 (Soutou, 2005: 778–82). Here again was clear evidence of France's difficulty in squaring the circle of building European security while satisfying the Anglo-Saxons.

The swing away from a European solution to an Atlantic one was rekindled in the late 1930s, albeit again in vain, as Hitler's Germany threatened France. With the ending of the Second World War, France's political leaders were once more focused on guaranteeing French future security in Europe. Again they attempted to square the circle of either the European or Atlantic solutions. From 1944–1945, France's leader, General de Gaulle, pursued both solutions. In 1944, he secretly sought a military guarantee from Britain and the USA using deputy chief of the general staff, General Billotte, as an envoy to the United States to seal such an agreement, thereby beginning the process that would lead to the signing of the NATO treaty in April 1949. At the same time he sought to constitute a Western European confederation that would guarantee France's security and ‘allow us to maintain our independence and to escape the Americano-Russian condominium’, as he told Mendes-France in 1944 (Lacouture, 1981: 159, quoted in Soutou, 2005: 812). But this latter position was much criticized at the time in French political and administrative circles as too ambitious. In the end, the Atlantic eclipsed the European solution and France finally achieved the American security guarantee through NATO, which she had dreamed of since 1919 allowing her, unrealistically, to look to her global ambitions.

Of course, the pendulum did not stop there. Increasingly through the 1950s Europe returned to the fore, although initially as a means of providing France with economic rather than security guarantees. It was when the European communities were in place and France was more self-confident that her new leader from 1958, General de Gaulle, gradually began to distance her from the Atlantic Alliance until finally withdrawing France from the NATO integrated command in 1966.9

Since the First World War, France has been a ‘great power without greatness’ (Frank, 2000: 834), largely as a result of the mismatch between her international ambitions and her modest means, and her relationship with the United States and Europe has been characterized by alternation and fluctuation. Apart from after 1958 when she appeared, in Robert Frank's words, ‘a power that has panache’, but only really ‘soft power’, her fundamental weakness as a medium-ranked power with global ambitions has not changed (ibid.: 834). That weakness has always limited her political leaders’ freedom of manoeuvre. France's attitude to the United States over the longue durée, its fluctuations, its blowing hot and cold has been all about managing France's own limited power in the most pragmatic of ways. It has always to be borne in mind that France's power is inextricably linked to her national identity both domestically and abroad. In recent times, as leaders from de Gaulle to Sarkozy have reconciled themselves to France playing more of a European role, they have felt the need to convince themselves that all the same France is not renouncing its world role (ibid.: 838). There is the lingering feeling that ‘the more we are Europeans the more we can be a world power’. Similar ambivalence is alive in relation to the United States. Sarkozy is reported to have stated in relation to France's return to the NATO command structure: ‘The more we are friends with the Americans, the more we can be independent’ (Kern, 2008).

As has been demonstrated, this is not novel, nor is it a ‘rupture’ with the past. It is merely a French leader again wanting to square the circle of having both Atlantic and European guarantees for French security that can free her up to play the world role to which she has always aspired. It is suggested that if Sarkozy wants to promote autonomous European defence, he will first have to placate sceptics on both sides of the Atlantic by proving his commitment to NATO. Indeed, French General Henri Bentégeat, President of the EU Military Committee, stated in April 2008: ‘I think that if France normalizes its relations with NATO, European defense projects will become easier to progress’ (ibid.). Certainly Sarkozy's desire to square the circle of closer relations with the United States and Europe was openly admitted by the President on 11 March when announcing French reintegration of NATO command. Remarking upon the symbolism of the venue for his announcement, the Foch amphitheatre in the Ecole Militaire in Paris, Sarkozy stated: ‘he [Foch] was the first commander in chief of the European and US Allied forces during the First World War. The concept of ally and friend doesn’t date from the beginning of my five-year term. At times, I get the feeling it's totally new. So you’ve made my task easier in the Amphithéâtre Foch’ (Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et Européennes, 2009).10 Whether Sarkozy will be able to forge that symbiosis is unclear; traditionally, French power has been insufficient to balance effectively the Atlantic and European dimensions to her satisfaction. Indeed, Sarkozy may already be experiencing the difficulty of his predecessors. France has been disappointed by the lukewarm response to her return to the NATO fold by her Allies, in particular Britain, partly because Sarkozy has linked reintegration to developments in the European defence arena, which makes Britain nervous (Cameron and Maulny, 2009: 3). On the domestic front, opposition to a full return to NATO has also raised old sensitivities. Some opponents, such as the centre right French political leader, Francois Bayrou, suggest that rather than enhancing French autonomy, a return would end ‘an element of our identity in the concert of nations’ (Hall, 2009). In this, he has been joined by a cross-section of the political elite from the socialists to colleagues from Sarkozy's own conservative governing party, such as former Gaullist prime ministers Alain Juppé and Dominique de Villepin. Nevertheless, although out of kilter with large elements of the French political and administrative elites, it is suggested that 58 per cent of the French support their country's return to the NATO command structures (Simons, 2009).


‘France has been disappointed by the lukewarm response to her return to the NATO fold by her Allies’

When all is said and done, Nicolas Sarkozy is more prone to compromise than appearances suggest. This would indicate that an official reintegration of NATO's military command would not be a return to the subservient position that France felt she occupied before 1966. As the French National Assembly prepared to vote on 17 March 2009 (329 to 228) to allow France to reintegrate fully NATO, Sarkozy's Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, intoned in Gaullist vein: ‘France, an ally but no vassal, faithful but unsubdued, always fraternal but never subservient: that is the nature of our relationship with America’; adding that ‘friendship should not be confused with naiveté’.11 President Sarkozy has stressed that under no circumstances would French autonomous decision making be impaired, that France would continue to reserve the right to a ‘freedom of assessment’ before deploying its troops on NATO missions (Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et Européennes, 2009), and that France's nuclear force will remain a national one with France keeping its distance from the nuclear planning group. Furthermore, given the major questions with which France and her NATO partners will have to contend in the near future – European Security and Defence Policy, relations between NATO and the EU, even the future of NATO itself – Sarkozy will have ample time to continue bargaining for French interests. His logic is the logic of the deal. These pressure points can always be used as excuses for limiting the degree of French commitment to the Alliance and for drawing back in a way that would curry favour with the French elite and elements of public opinion and seem even less like a ‘rupture’ (Vaïsse, 2009: 560–1). In the end, it is hard to disagree with former French Foreign Minister Hervé de Charette's analysis of Sarkozy's foreign policy as being different, but ‘It is not however a rupture that the weight of our strategic interests and past commitments does not allow for. It is more of an adjustment of our foreign policy to the realities of today’ (de Charette, 2008: 565, quoted in Vaïsse, 2009: 565). These kinds of pragmatic adjustments have always been a feature of French foreign policy over the long term, whatever the rhetoric, not least in the fluctuating relations with the United States. Taking the long view, Nicolas Sarkozy's stance on NATO and the US smacks more of evolution than revolution and in that sense cannot truly be described as novel.


While it is stipulated that France will maintain its traditional stance since 1966 towards NATO, the document does indicate that it is logical for France to participate in NATO committees, which she left in 1966, when and where necessary (Livre Blanc sur la Défense, 1994: 36–7).


Announced by Sarkozy on 11 March 2009 in the closing remarks to a conference entitled: ‘France European Defence and NATO in the 21st Century’.


As someone who served on a French government commission charged by the Prime Minister with thinking radically about the reform of a whole sector of the French state, we were given to understand that certain cabinets ministériels would not allow particular sacred cows to be touched.


The rigorous two-part ‘plan’.


80 per cent of recruits to the Quai d’Orsay between 1905 and 1927 were graduates of Sciences Po.


Ironically, President de Gaulle, on the point of withdrawing France from NATO's command stated in his press conference on 21 February 1966, less convincingly: ‘This does not represent a “rupture” at all, but a necessary adaptation’ (Vaïsse, 2009: 560), something that Sarkozy's foreign minister evoked himself on 17 March 2009 when he suggested that de Gaulle's 1966 ‘scission’ with NATO ‘was not really one, and this return which is not really one’.


For the new historical emphasis on continuity in the 1920s, see, for instance, Wright and Wright (2008: 58–76) and Keiger (1997: 274–311, 2004: 95–106).


On the continuity between Mitterrand and Chirac see Keiger (2005: 138–53). In his 11 March 2009 announcement of France reintegrating the NATO command, Sarkozy stated that Chirac had wanted ‘full participation in NATO's structures’, but ‘As everyone knows, the procedure Jacques Chirac set in train to reintegrate NATO wasn’t completed because our American allies didn’t agree to a more equitable sharing of responsibilities in the military structure of the time. What I’m saying isn’t a value judgement, it's a truth disputed by no one’., accessed 14 March 2009.


On France and NATO, see Vaïsse et al (1996), Bozo (1996) and Vaïsse (1998).


This symbiosis of closer American and European ties was evoked by Sarkozy's Foreign Minister a week later: ‘Putting more France in Europe, putting more Europe in the Atlantic Alliance is a choice which engages our nation’ (Kouchner, 2009).


Statement by Francois Fillon to French National Assembly, 17 March 2009,, accessed 29 April 2009.


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