France and NATO

France’s role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Interview: A Closer Look with Ambassador Hélène Duchêne, Permanent Representative of France to NATO

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France: a reliable, responsible and inclusive ally

France’s involvement in NATO’s deterrence and collective defence mission

Collective defence, which is historically NATO’s primary objective, remains the Alliance’s main responsibility, in accordance with Article 5 of the Washington Treaty: “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and each will take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.

To date, Article 5 has only been used in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, which lead to an anti-terrorism operation being activated in the Mediterranean.

NATO takes the necessary deterrence and defence measures against any threat and aggression and against any emerging security challenge which could compromise the fundamental security of one or several Allies. The strategic concept recalls that “deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element” of NATO’s collective defence strategy.

When confronted with the illegal invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the war in Ukraine, the Allies decided, during the Warsaw summit of 2016, to enhance their assurance measures (air policing missions for certain Allies) and deploy an enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in Poland and the Baltic States, as well as tailored Forward Presence (tFP) around the Black Sea.

France played an active role in strengthening the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture. The French armed forces contribute significantly and regularly to the Western allies’ measures of reassurance launched in 2014 and the forward presence measures launched in 2016. On average, nearly 4,000 personnel are deployed every year.

France contributes to reassurance measures in two ways: air policing and intelligence gathering missions (including Airborne Warning and Control System flights every month) and participation in NATO exercises (20 exercises were scheduled in the region for 2018 including the Trident Juncture exercise in which 3,000 French soldiers participated).

As regards enhanced Forward Presence (Baltic countries and Poland), France provides an armoured, mechanized combined arms battalion company team of 300 personnel including Leclerc tanks and infantry combat vehicles, integrated over eight months over alternate years in a multinational batallion in Estonia (2017, 2019) and Lithuania (2018, 2020) alongside the United Kingdom and Germany, respectively. This strong commitment is unanimously appreciated.

As regards the tailored Forward Presence (Romania and Bulgaria), France participates with vessel deployments in the Black Sea (two to three per year) and maritime surveillance missions using maritime patrol aircraft.

France, NATO and the fight against terrorism

International cooperation is a fundamental dimension in tackling terrorism. France is already working with the international organizations to which it belongs including, the EU, UN and NATO, through bilateral relations and platforms for sharing information and expertise.

In this regard, the added value of NATO is the expertise that it has developed in its military component to fight terrorism, both operationally and in building military capabilities of third States:

  • NATO’s main role in fighting international terrorism is to accustom our armies to working together and to make them more effective and interoperable in conducting military operations: Although NATO is not currently conducting any counter-terrorism operations, its military operations, particularly in Afghanistan, have increased the interoperability of the Allies and partners.
  • NATO also plays a role to further the development of counter-terrorism capabilities of the Allies, determining the overall need.
  • The expertise developed within NATO also helps to create ties with other competent international organizations and to increase the capabilities of partners involved in military cooperation.

During the Brussels summit of 11 and 12 July 2018, the Allies launched, at the request of the Iraqi authorities, a non-combat training missions to support the ramp up of the Iraqi security forces, in addition to the action of the Global Coalition against Daesh.

A decisive contribution to the balanced sharing of responsibilities

According to the French White Paper on Defence and National Security of April 2013, France’s defence and national security strategy is not apprehended outside the NATO framework and its commitment within the EU. The 2017 Defence and National Security Strategic Review confirmed this strategy by describing the Atlantic Alliance as a “key component of European security”.

France therefore fully takes part in a balanced sharing of responsibilities and costs:

  • France has dedicated 1.81% of its GDP to the NATO budget in 2018, versus 1.78% in 2017, ranking 6 out of the 29 contributors. France dedicated 24.17% of its defence budget in 2017 to major acquisitions and research and development versus 24.44% in 2016 (ranking 6 out of 29).
  • France has committed to increase its defence spending to 2% of its national wealth in 2025. To support this commitment, the military programming bill 2019-2025 includes an unprecedented effort of €198 billion for armed forces over its first five years. At this time, France will devote 1.91% of its GDP to defence spending. Resources for the years 2024 and 2025 will be set out during an update scheduled for 2021, taking into account the macroeconomic situation at that time.
  • France is one of the rare Allies to have a defence tool that has been tested in combat covering the entire range. National capability priorities will ensure that this defence tool is updated consistent with the objectives approved within NATO and the European Union.
  • France has contributed through its operations in Sahel and in the Levant to the overall security of the Alliance and of Europe. It has deployed 300 staff to Estonia in the enhanced Forward Presence to contribute to the deterrence mission decided in Europe. Through its operational commitments France contributes to NATO’s political and military credibility.

France also plays a driving role in mobilizing and empowering European States in the fields of security and defence. The recent European initiatives in this field (Permanent Structured Cooperation and EU European Defence Fund, European Intervention Initiative around ten European States) fully complement NATO’s action and therefore help Europeans to invest more in their defence tools and be more effective and proactive from a military perspective.

Review of the latest NATO summits

The NATO Wales Summit of 4-5 September 2014: a pivotal moment for Euro-Atlantic Security

The NATO Summit, which was held in Wales on 4 and 5 September 2014, took into account France’s priorities:

  • the Summit demonstrated the Alliance’s unity in a period of international tensions where its internal cohesion had been tested. Our mutual commitments to collective defence were strengthened;
  • the transatlantic partnership was reaffirmed, as was the importance of the role of Defence Europe, a crucial element of the Alliance’s security;
  • adaptation of the military tool of the Allies, with the adoption of a “Readiness Action Plan” and a series of measures to help NATO adapt to the development of threats and preserve our security. Good progress was made on projects France promotes on intelligence in operations, which is essential to our armed forces;
  • strong Allied commitment to upping their defence effort. While France is one of the European countries that is exemplary in this area, it encouraged better burden-sharing, which is also a requirement for the credibility of Defence Europe;
  • adoption of an enhanced cyber defence policy encouraging NATO to better defend its networks and supporting the efforts made by the Allies in this area;
  • progress on the reform of NATO, which will be continued by the new Secretary-General.

NATO Summit in Warsaw, on 8 and 9 July 2016

The Warsaw Summit was an opportunity to show a united, inclusive and responsible Alliance.

In Warsaw, the Allies committed to “unambiguously demonstrate, as part of our overall posture, Allies’ solidarity, determination, and ability to act by triggering an immediate Allied response to any aggression” (paragraph 40 of the Warsaw Summit Communiqué).

The Allies thus committed to establish an Enhanced Forward Presence in Baltic countries and Poland. France announced that it would play its full role, with the deployment in 2017 of a company, three to six months a year, to Estonia.

The Enhanced Forward Presence is meant for times of peace. It is an ad hoc mechanism, which is in line with NATO’s non-aggressive, predictable and defensive posture with regard to Russia. It complies with the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation signed in 1997. In addition to bolstering its defence and deterrence posture, NATO keeps the lines of communication open with Russia to avoid risks and increase transparency.

The commitment made at the Wales Summit in September 2014 on defence budgets was reaffirmed. An additional commitment was also taken, at the instigation of France, by all of the Allies, to build their national cyber defence capacities. Cyber space was recognized as an operational area, with the precautions desired by France (recognition of international law, posture of restraint).

The role of the Alliance in the South was recognized when it has added value (continued engagement in Afghanistan, support for the coalition against Daesh) and in support of the European Union in the Mediterranean region.

Finally, the summit highlighted NATO-EU relations with the signature of a joint declaration of the leaders from both organizations.

The NATO special meeting of Heads of State and Government held in Brussels on 25 May 2017

This brief meeting, held in the year following the election of the US president, provided the opportunity:

  • To reaffirm a united Alliance and a solid transatlantic relationship;
  • To reaffirm France’s desire to implement the commitments taken at the Wales Summit in 2014 to increase defence spending and modernize capabilities. This commitment is in keeping with ongoing initiatives to shore up European defence;
  • To talk about the role NATO can play in stepping up counter-terrorism efforts, and particularly in deciding whether the Global Coalition against Daesh should join NATO. Given the military support NATO has already provided the Coalition, this decision is above all a practical one, which should allow the Alliance to participate in the Coalition’s political deliberations;
  • For Belgian authorities to officially hand over the building of the new headquarters to NATO’s allied countries.

NATO Summit in Brussels, on 11 and 12 July 2018

For France, this meeting was an opportunity to demonstrate that NATO is a united and mutually supportive organization, effective in external theatres, modern in its use of resources and credible terms of collective defence.
This is shown through:

  • Respecting our commitments to balancing the burden, be it regarding our defence expenditure, our capacities or our operational commitments. For the fourth consecutive year, the Europeans have increased their defence budgets. The fast and substantial progress on Defence Europe is also a major contribution to the Alliance’s security.
  • Our commitment to collective defence, shown by strengthening our command structure, our efforts to enhance the mobility and readiness of forces and the decision to maintain reassurance measures. France has notably deployed over 300 personnel within NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and announced, during the Defence Ministers Meeting in February 2019, a substantial contribution to NATO’s Readiness Initiative (one brigade, three air squadrons and three ships, i.e. up to 10% of the initiative).
  • Strengthening the Alliance’s role in counter-terrorism, particularly thanks to NATO’s efforts regarding partners’ defence capacity building. France therefore supported the launch – at the request of Iraqi authorities – of a NATO training mission in Iraq.

Historical background

France’s role in NATO during the Cold War (1949-1991)

France was a founding member of NATO and fully participated in the Alliance from its outset. Paris was home to its first permanent Headquarters in the 1950s and 60s.

In 1966, France decided to withdraw from the NATO Integrated Military Command Structures. That decision in no way undermined France’s commitment to contribute to the collective defence of the Alliance. Instead, it aimed, in the words of General de Gaulle, to “modify the form of our Alliance, without altering its substance.”

The Declaration on Atlantic Relations signed by Foreign Ministers following the Ottawa Meeting (19 June 1974) was an opportunity to affirm, at the highest level, France’s contribution as a dissuasive force within the Alliance: “The European members who provide three-quarters of the conventional strength of the Alliance in Europe, and two of whom possess nuclear forces capable of playing a deterrent role of their own contributing to the overall strengthening of the deterrence of the Alliance, undertake to make the necessary contribution to maintain the common defence at a level capable of deterring and if necessary repelling all actions directed against the independence and territorial integrity of the members of the Alliance.”

France’s involvement in the Alliance’s operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Southern Flank

Since the end of the Cold War, France has been one of the leading contributors to NATO operations during the 1990s and 2000s, with our forces being of high quality and highly available.

France has also participated in NATO crisis management operations since their beginnings in 1993, contributing to operations in Bosnia from 1993 to 1994 under IFOR and then SFOR, as well as to the NATO air campaign in 1999 aimed at putting an end to atrocities against civilians in Kosovo. France actively contributed to the NATO force deployed to Kosovo, commanding KFOR on three occasions. In early 2014, it was decided that a large part of the French component would be withdrawn.

France committed forces in Afghanistan from 2001 and provided a considerable contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which was placed under NATO command from 2003. In 2012, it withdrew its fighting forces and since then, has not provided troops to the "Resolute Support" Mission which succeeded ISAF. Nevertheless, France contributes to the financing of the mission, in the same way that it helps finance all NATO operations.

France also contributed to Operation Unified Protector in Libya in 2011, under UN Security Council Resolution 1973. It is also currently participating in the NATO training mission in Iraq. France regularly deploys its support vessels as part of the Sea Guardian anti-terrorism mission in the Mediterranean.

France’s return to the NATO Integrated Military Command Structures

France’s decision to fully participate in NATO had two aims: firstly, to increase our presence and influence in the Alliance, and secondly, to facilitate renewal of momentum for Defence Europe, lifting any ambiguity as to a possible competition between the two organizations.

France also attached several conditions to its return to the command structures:

  • maintaining full discretion for France’s contribution to NATO operations;
  • maintaining its nuclear independence: France decided not to join the NATO Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), which determines the Alliance’s nuclear policy;
  • no French force is placed under permanent NATO command in times of peace;
  • non-participation in the common funding of certain expenditures decided prior to France’s return to the command structures.

Following a positive vote by the French Assembly, France officially announced its full participation in the NATO Integrated Military Command Structures during the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit in April 2009. As a result, France has, since 2009, about 750 additional officer positions within the NATO Integrated Command Structures, including that of Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT), which was been held from 2009 to 2012 by General Abrial, then between September 2012 and September 2015 by General Palméros, and since 23 March 2015 by General Denis Mercier.

Video: Archives, the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty (4 April 1949)

With the help of our diplomatic archives, discover the history and importance of the Atlantic Alliance and France’s role in this organization since 1949.

Updated: March 2019