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France would improve relations with NATO: Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was convinced France would improve relations with NATO, but stopped short of announcing a return to command structures Charles de Gaulle quit in the 1960s.

world Updated: Feb 08, 2009 09:13 IST

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Saturday he was convinced France would improve relations with NATO, but stopped short of announcing a return to command structures Charles de Gaulle quit in the 1960s.

Sarkozy has said that he wants France to assume its full role in NATO, but has not spelled out exactly how and when it would seek to rejoin the alliance military structures.

"My conviction is that France should improve its links with NATO, by being an independent ally, a free partner of the United States," Sarkozy told the annual Munich Security Conference.

Then French President General Charles de Gaulle withdrew French forces from NATO's command in 1966 at the height of the Cold War and expelled the alliance headquarters from Paris and Fontainebleau to protest what he saw as U.S. hegemony in Europe.

While France remains a NATO member and fields thousands of troops in its operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere, its formal return to the alliance military command would be a landmark move with the potential to ease lingering tensions over how Europe and the United States organise defence cooperation.

Sarkozy said he would never do anything that would call into question the independence of France.

"The alliance with the United States and the alliance with Europe do not call the independence of my country into question, it strengthens its independence. This is something I am going to explain to the French people," he said.

Diplomats and other analysts expect a decision by France as soon as an April summit in Strasbourg due to mark the 60th anniversary of the Western military pact.

However it remains a delicate political issue in France, given that Sarkozy made boosting European defence capabilities a precondition for rejoining the military structures -- something Paris has pushed with only limited success.

The United States has agreed in principle that France should secure two top NATO posts in the event of its expected return to NATO command, a diplomat said on Friday.

Under the agreement, French officials would head NATO's regional command headquarters in Lisbon, Portugal, and its Allied Command Transformation headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia -- the command centre in charge of revamping Europe's Cold War protector to tackle 21st century security challenges.

While Sarkozy pushed for the European Union to strengthen its military might, which he sees as complementary to NATO's operations, non-EU NATO member Turkey has resisted efforts by the two bodies to cooperate more.

Turkey does so on the grounds that EU member Cyprus -- with whom it has a longstanding dispute over the divided island -- is blocking its bid for closer EU membership.

Ankara has also been irked by France's opposition to Turkey's membership and its Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said on Friday it was still assessing the possibility of France rejoining NATO's military command structure.

Alliance officials say any decision to rejoin the structures is a decision for France rather than one requiring a consensus vote by the 26 NATO members.