When Somali pirates hijacked a French yacht with 30 crew members aboard in early April, the French government took just over an hour to start organizing a counterattack. While negotiators talked about a ransom, French commandos parachuted directly into the Indian Ocean and joined up with ships from France, the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany and Pakistan already operating in the region as part of a naval task force set up in 2002. A week later the ransom was paid, the hostages freed, safe and sound. Then French Special Forces moved in. After intelligence located an SUV in Somalia carrying six of the alleged pirates, a sniper in a helicopter fired into the truck's engine, killing it dead. The men were captured alive, and are now in jail in France.
You couldn't really call the operation a battle, much less a war. But it's the kind of fighting Western armies are called on to do more and more: deploying relatively small and highly professional combat units over long distances, coordinating with military forces from different countries in varying alliances and trying to impose order amid chaos. It's the kind of thing the French do well, and it is key to their growing—perhaps pivotal—role in a North Atlantic Treaty Organization that has changed dramatically since the end of the cold war.
A year into his first term, in fact, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is using his warm relations with Washington and his military's strong record fighting in Africa and the Balkans to help re-establish France publicly and formally as a leading player in NATO, more than four decades after President Charles de Gaulle pulled out of the alliance's integrated command and kicked its offices out of Paris. At the same time, he's working to put France at the fore of a separate European Union defense force and extend its influence eastward to the Persian Gulf and South Asia. And if France really wants to project itself on the world stage this way, well, it couldn't happen at a better time. U.S. forces are stretched thin, and there are only a handful of other armies with the training, the bases, the organization and, most important, the political will to kill and die in far corners of the planet to keep local wars from emerging into global threats. The shortlist includes the Brits—and the French, and that's about it.
In fact, at a purely military level, French soldiers have been playing major roles in multinational operations since the early 1990s. But French "independence" from NATO decision-making was of almost theological importance in French politics, so the military got little credit. Now Sarkozy is integrating NATO cooperation and a European defense force into his government's plans to magnify its influence and multiply limited resources. Far from rejecting NATO decisions, he wants to be at the table making them. The result represents "a revolution of sorts in NATO and transatlantic relations," says French parliamentarian Pierre Lellouche, who wrote the defense and foreign-policy planks in Sarkozy's campaign platform last year.
Back in 1966, when the alliance was all about huge standing armies facing off against the Soviet Union on European battlefields, French President Charles de Gaulle claimed his Army would be weakened, and perhaps, he feared, humiliated or betrayed by reliance on U.S. protection. After he pulled out of NATO's command structure, French forces had no say in its military operations. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO's purpose started changing. Instead of a big theoretical war where no shots were ever fired, it faced a proliferation of small, hot conflicts with a whole lot of actual shooting. Smaller armies could play much bigger roles in Bosnia, say, or Kosovo, and French President Jacques Chirac made sure French troops were there. "Operationally," says one veteran American commander at NATO headquarters, "when we put forces together, the French raise their hands."
Of course, that's not the image most Americans have. When Chirac opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, angry Yanks started called his countrymen "surrender monkeys." But Chirac's warnings proved prescient, and demonstrated forbearance, not cowardice or a lack of capability. Sarkozy—for all his pro-American sympathies—similarly has no intention of sending troops to Iraq. But the top NATO officer in Kosovo, commanding 16,000 peacekeepers at the critical moment when the country declared independence from Serbia, is French. French troops make up some 80 percent of the EU force now stationed in Chad. The French base in Djibouti has become vital to NATO operations in the Horn of Africa and the surrounding waters. Most strikingly, France is now building a small forward base in Abu Dhabi that could help it deploy in and around the Persian Gulf.
But Sarkozy's best-laid plans could well go awry in Afghanistan, which has become a crucible for the whole alliance. "This is where the future of NATO is at stake," says Etienne de Durand at the French Institute of International Relations. If the alliance fails there, he warns, NATO could wind up like other vestigial cold-war bureaucracies—"international organizations that never die, but are actually sort of zombie organizations." Victory is far from certain. The Taliban keep coming back. Casualties are rising, and while the Canadians, the British, the Dutch and the Americans are fighting a tough war in the south and east, the Germans, Italians and others originally dispatched as peacekeepers and nation-builders have been reluctant to plunge into combat.
France is not quite in either camp. "The French are at war with themselves in Afghanistan," says a senior NATO official in Brussels. On the one hand, if Sarkozy sends troops into the fighting, he helps shore up U.S. support in other arenas—like his plan to build an all-European defense structure that can coordinate with NATO in different parts of the world. Previously, Washington saw any such EU force as a distraction competing for resources. But with so many troubles and so many wars, there's growing recognition that some conflicts—in Africa for instance—may be of more interest to the EU than to the whole alliance. On the other hand, it's hard for Sarkozy to go too far in Afghanistan because the war there is unpopular with both the French public and the military.
The crunch came at the beginning of this year, when Canada threatened to pull out of the fight unless more troops from other NATO allies joined it on what pass for front lines in Afghanistan. Finally, at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, Sarkozy promised to send a battalion of some 700 soldiers to the east of Afghanistan, in addition to the 1,500 already in the country, so the Americans could deploy more forces to the embattled south. In an impassioned defense of his decision during a television interview last week, Sarkozy warned that not only Afghanistan was at stake, but Pakistan. "It has the atomic bomb, and if we let Afghanistan fall, Pakistan will fall like a house of cards." Meanwhile, Somali pirates seized a Spanish fishing boat last week and took its crew hostage. Madrid sent a reconnaissance aircraft to the French military base at Djibouti. It seems the little wars affecting big alliances go on and on—and France is ready for action.
With Tracy McNicoll in Paris and Benjamin Sutherland in Treviso, Italy