STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Now, French President Nicolas Sarkozy says it's time to stand with the United States. And reporter Eleanor Beardsley has more.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: In October 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle announced that France, with its nuclear capabilities, would defend itself.
CHARLES DE GAULLE: (French language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: De Gaulle pulled his country out of NATO's top command and kicked NATO headquarters out of Paris. He wanted France to be independent of U.S. domination of post-war Western Europe. But despite taking its distance from NATO, France has never left the alliance. Today it is the fourth largest contributor of troops.
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BEARDSLEY: At a military base in Southern France, soldiers fire machine guns from armored vehicles - war game training for Kosovo. France participates fully in NATO's missions in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Sarkozy says it's now time for France to take its full place in NATO's command structures.
NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Through translator) I don't believe the role of a great power like France is to remain on the fence. That means we're nowhere. The most important condition for independence is to know who your friends are. And I'm not afraid to say that our place is first and foremost with our Western allies.
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BEARDSLEY: The French parliament held a vociferous debate over the country's return to NATO, with critics saying it would sacrifice France's independence on the world stage. French parliamentarian Nicolas Dupont-Aignan says his opposition to France's return to NATO is not about anti-Americanism.
NICOLAS DUPONT: We were solidaire when it was necessary with the United States, but we could say no, for example, against Bush when Bush went to Iraq. With this reintegration, I'm not sure that we will be able to say no like we did. I think a good ally is an ally that is independent.
BEARDSLEY: Opposition to France's reintegration of NATO command structures also came from members of Sarkozy's own party. Dominique de Villepin led France's crusade against the Iraq war as foreign minister in 2003.
DOMINIQUE: (Through translator) Arab, African and Latin American countries have always appreciated France's freedom and originality. If we rejoin the top ranks of NATO, our room to maneuver and to be a powerful voice in a multi-polar world will be compromised.
BEARDSLEY: That is nonsense, says Frederic Bozo, historian at the Sorbonne and author of a book about the French exception in NATO. Bozo points out that Germany fully opposed the Iraq war from within the alliance. He says France's rejoining of NATO command structures won't change anything on the ground, but it will have political and symbolic importance.
FREDERIC BOZO: The simple fact that France refused to have a normal position in NATO was in itself a problem because it showed the limits of Atlantic consensus. With France returning to a normal position, NATO certainly gains coherence and cohesion.
BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Man: (French spoken)
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BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
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