Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 379–391 | Cite as

Explaining France’s NATO ‘normalisation’ under Nicolas Sarkozy (2007–2012)

  • Frédéric BozoEmail author


Shortly after coming to power in 2007, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his willingness to ‘normalise’ France’s relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). His aim was to reverse a central tenet of Gaullist foreign and security policy which, since General de Gaulle’s 1966 decision to withdraw France from NATO’s integrated military command, had relied on the country’s ‘specific’status in the Atlantic Alliance. While there had been unsuccessful attempts — under Presidents François Mitterrand in 1990–1991 and, most notably, Jacques Chirac in 1995–1997 — at such normalisation over the previous two decades, Sarkozy’s move proved successful and, in 2009, France again became a fully integrated NATO member. Despite hints that he would ‘review’ this decision and perhaps reverse it or at least correct it, his successor, François Hollande, has decided to maintain the status quo. This article seeks to offer an explanation for Sarkozy’s decision and to analyse why it was successfully carried out.


Sarkozy France the USA defence NATO 


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  1. 1.
    Speech by Nicolas Sarkozy before the US Congress, Washington, 7 November 2007,
  2. 2.
    Speech by Nicolas Sarkozy at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, 3 April 2008,
  3. 3.
    Speech by Nicolas Sarkozy given at the conference ‘France, European Defence, and NATO in the 21st Century’,
  4. 4.
    Letter from Nicolas Sarkozy to the heads of state of the Atlantic Alliance, 19 March 2009,
  5. 5.
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  6. 5a.
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  8. 6.
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  9. 6a.
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  10. 7.
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  12. 9.
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  13. 9a.
    Gilles Delafon and Thomas Sancton, Dear Jacques, Cher Bill. Au coeur de l’Elysée et de la Maison Blanche 1995–1999 (Paris: Plon, 1999); and Frédéric Bozo, La France et — l’Alliance depuis la fin de la guerre froide, op. cit.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    This episode is analysed in Frédéric Bozo, ‘Un rendez-vous manqué? La France, les Etats-Unis et l’Alliance atlantique, 1990–1991’, Relations Internationales, no. 120 (2004): 119–32.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
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  16. 12.
    For a refutation of these interpretations or indictments, see Justin Vaïsse, ‘Sarkozy, le gaulliste décomplexé’, Rue89, April 3, 2008,; andGoogle Scholar
  17. 12a.
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  18. 13.
    An analysis of Sarkozy’s Atlantic policy can be found in Frédéric Bozo, ‘France and NATO under Sarkozy: End of the French Exception?’, Fondation pour l’innovation politique, March 2008, Scholar
  19. 14.
    For a study of these changes, see Rapport d’information de la commission des Affaires étrangères du Sénat, ‘Les enjeux de l’évolution de l’OTAN’ (rapport n°405, session extraordinaire de 2006–2007, Jean-François Poncet, Jean-Guy Branger et André Rouvière, rapporteurs),–405/r06–4051.pdf.
  20. 15.
    For an analysis of this paradigm shift, see Frédéric Bozo, ‘The US Changing Role and Europe’s Transatlantic Dilemmas’, in Just Another Major Crisis? The United States and Europe since 2000, ed. Geir Lundestad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 95–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 16.
    The continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations is very clear on this issue. See, e.g. the speech given in Paris by Victoria Nuland, US Ambassador to NATO during the Bush administration, on 22 February 2008,; and Vice-President Joe Biden’s speech one year later at the NATO security conference in Munich, 2 February 2009,
  22. 17.
    Based in Norfolk, Virginia, the SACT is one of the two supreme commands of NATO along with Allied Command Operations (formerly, SACEUR); as for the Allied Joint Command, based in Lisbon, it was notably responsible for the NATO Response Force (NRF); see ‘La France parachève son retour dans l’OTAN’, Le Monde, February 5, 2009, and ‘France eyeing NATO post in US’, International Herald Tribune, February 5, 2009. In July 2009, General Stéphane Abrial (formerly Chief of Staff for the French Air Force) was named SACT at the same moment as General Philippe Stoltz was chosen to lead Allied Joint Command Lisbon; see ‘Un commandant suprême de l’OTAN confié pour la première fois à un Européen’, Le Monde, September 9, 2009.Google Scholar
  23. 18.
    See, for example, Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech at a conference at the Ecole Militaire on ‘La France, la défense européenne et l’OTAN au 21ème siècle’, Paris, 11 March 2009.Google Scholar
  24. 19.
    The situation changed in the months following France’s reintegration, as Paris was now open to the possibility of reinforcing its contingent in Afghanistan; see ‘La France n’écarte plus l’envoi de troupes supplémentaires en Afghanistan’, Le Monde, December 18, 2009.Google Scholar
  25. 20.
    In 2006, for example, the percentage of people who thought that NATO was still ‘indispensable’ was 59% in France, compared with 62% in the UK, and only 56% in Germany, 52% in Italy, 48% in Portugal and 44% in Turkey. See German Marshall Fund, Transatlantic Trends 2006,
  26. 21.
    According to an LH2 poll conducted for on 6–7 March 2009, 52% of the people interviewed thought that France’s return to the integrated military command was a good thing (with 27% against the return): According to an Ifop poll conducted for Paris-Match on 5–6 March 2009, the results were 58% in favour of France’s return to the integrated military command and 37% against:–20090310FILWWW00306-58-des-fran-cais-pour-la-france-dans-l-otan.php.
  27. 22.
    See ‘L’Assemblée nationale donne son feu vert au retour de la France dans l’OTAN’,, 17 March 2009, 448.html. See also Prime Minister François Fillon’s speech at the National Assembly regarding the government’s foreign policy, 17 March 2009,
  28. 23.
    The official reason for the French reluctance to use NATO was, of course, of a different nature: it was the fear that the Alliance’s involvement might deter Arab nations from supporting, let alone participating in, the operation. Yet it is hard to believe that considerations of leadership were not influent.Google Scholar
  29. 24.
    ‘Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’, adopted by Heads of State and Government in Lisbon,
  30. 25.
    See Hubert Védrine, Rapport pour le président de la République française sur les conséquences du retour de la France dans le commandement intégré de l’OTAN, sur l’avenir de la relation transatlantique et les perspectives de l’Europe de la défense, 14 November 2012, V7_-_definitive cle05be84.pdf (While this article was written for the most part prior to the 2012 presidential election and this report, one cannot but highlight the irony, when the same Hubert Védrine had written a report for Sarkozy five years earlier in which he defended the maintenance of France’s then specific NATO status.)Google Scholar
  31. 26.
    Stanley Hoffmann, ‘Gaullism by any other name’, Foreign Policy, no. 57 (1984–1985): 38–57.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Board of Transatlantic Studies 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut d’Etudes européennesUniversity Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3ParisFrance

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