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Why Did France Pass on NATO?

In his address to a special joint session of the French parliament yesterday, President François Hollande took the unprecedented step of invoking Article 42.7 of the EU treaty. The article states that all EU member countries have “an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter” to any fellow member state that is the “victim of armed aggression.” The little-known clause was apparently written into the treaty at the behest of Greece, which wanted additional safety guarantees in case it went to war with fellow NATO-member Turkey. Experts claim it has not been invoked since the treaty went into force.

So why is France invoking Article 42.7 rather than reaching for NATO’s own Article 5? The WSJ has a partial explanation:

French officials have said they don’t want to invoke the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mutual-defense clause, arguing the current U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State is more nimble. There are also concerns that invoking the NATO treaty, which was only done once, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., could serve as a propaganda boost for Islamic State.

But there might be more to it than that. After all, Paris has wanted to build up a European defense identity as an alternative to NATO since Charles de Gaulle toyed with pulling France out of the alliance in the 1960s.

On one level, the move is purely symbolic. The French know their neighbors well. They don’t really expect EU member countries to contribute large numbers of troops to any joint military endeavor. Luxembourg’s contribution to the war will be minimal, and the French almost certainly don’t think that Germany will help that much either. And anyway, France is only considering limited military action. It isn’t looking to occupy Syria, and plans to drop just a few bombs here and there. It doesn’t really need massive EU commitments to reach that goal.

But there are some tangible wins to this move as well. For one, the French get to watch the Germans squirm a little—a beloved sport in Paris. But more consequentially, it allowed Hollande’s ministers to declare that France would blow past the 3 percent budget cap the EU has imposed on it. This is very shrewd—it will be very hard for the EU to disentangle domestic from military spending, allowing the French to pump up their domestic economy a fair bit in a time of crisis.

Finally, by putting some distance between itself and America, the move could build up France’s credibility a bit among the disillusioned Sunnis, while also holding the door open to deeper cooperation with Russia in Syria, should the opportunity present itself.

All in all, a very canny bit of maneuvering. Chapeau, M. Hollande.

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  • jeburke

    TAI left out the most obvious reason: NATO members might not respond. No one expects any military clout from the EU.

    • Andrew Allison

      As the post points out, the subtext is not involving the US (via NATO) and evasion of the deficit limit. If France were to invoke NATO’s Article 5 and the members did not respond, it would mark the end of the organization.

      • ljgude

        I reckon that is pretty near the mark, Andrew.

      • CaliforniaStark

        Also it allows for France to be able to work more closely with Putin, who at this point may be a more potentially valuable ally than Obama.

      • Jim__L

        What are the tradeoffs to France, for ending NATO?

        • Andrew Allison

          Going it alone, or with Russia (which might be worse).

  • Fat_Man

    NATO? Why waste their time:

    President Barack Obama said he’s not interested in “pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning[.]”

    Besides, the places that france really needs to attack are in its own suburbs (a/k/a “banlieue”)

  • PKCasimir

    Canny? Mon Dieu, Non? This is so typically French and why they continue to lose wars and are in a steep decline from which they will never recover. If you declare war against someone, as Hollande did, you prioritize that objective and everything becomes secondary to that purpose. How does anyone take the French seriously when they seize every opportunity to play silly little games that do nothing to further their primary objective but just increase the scorn with which they are held by their European allies. The question should be whether the French will still be fighting this war in six months or whether they will have made some cynical deal to get out of it since they are tired of waging it. I bet on the latter.

  • Hell-Cat

    The real reason is because they know they can’t count on Obama.

    • Jim__L

      Would they have tried to go their own way even if this had happened under Bush? I can think of arguments both for and against.

  • vb

    Tried to post this earlier, but it wouldn’t post. Does Turkey have something to do with this? It is not exactly trustworthy WRT the Kurds and radical Islam. Would France want the ability to keep them out of some planning sessions?

  • Episteme

    I think that it’s also an issue of the nations and powers-therein involved. Notice that, since invoking 42.7, the EU nations have been working very strongly together on police and security investigations regarding the plot (moreso than usual and directed more from Paris than one would expect even given the circumstances). NATO is purely a military alliance and is useful in terms of bombing Raqqa, but less so in tracking down any ISIS cells across refugee camps of the various EU countries, for example. “[A]ll the means in their power” the EU’s 42.7 is broader than NATO’s Article 11 mutual-defense clause. If France already sees Russia and the US-based coalition forces in Iraq and Syria as partners to work with, their major concern would more likely be jumpstarting security and investigation work domestically (which they would consider part of the same operation but on a separate front), and it makes sense to use the appropriate means for the appropriate allies there, especially given the question of how quickly forces in Europe would mobilize WITHOUT a legal callout given current tensions over the last few months of refugee debates.

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