BRUSSELS -- It seems like only yesterday that the French were the enfants terribles of NATO, carrying on in the dissident spirit of President Charles de Gaulle, who pulled his army out of the alliance in 1966 and pressed the organization headquarters out of Paris.
Only two years ago, Paris was aggressively campaigning for a strictly European defense capability, independent of the United States.
But this week's NATO summit in Brussels found the French to be a cornerstone of a strong NATO and a champion of a powerful U.S. military presence in Europe.
This apparent about-face was one of the more remarkable results of President Clinton's diplomatic success in uniting the XTC allies at one of the the most important summits in the alliance's history.
"The French return to the fold has been painstaking, and they would not choose to call it that," said a senior NATO official. "But Clinton shepherded it through, and it is a reality."
As the dust settled on the meeting of the heads of state of the 16 NATO nations, France remained, on paper at least, in the aloof position it has maintained for the past 28 years. But the reality is that it will now play an ever more vital role in Western Europe's security, making a major contribution to NATO planning and strategy and helping shape a new NATO in the post-Cold War world.
As President Francois Mitterrand -- with whom Mr. Clinton shared much of the limelight at the summit -- said, it was the beginning of a "new spirit of trans-Atlantic relations." He added that NATO had set itself the goal of "drawing up a truly European identity on defense, followed by a joint defense and security policy capable of leading to a real joint defense strategy."
What paved the way -- and saved French face -- was the summit's decision to reform NATO's command structure to allow strictly European responses to regional threats. Under this formula, Combined Joint Task Forces (CJTF) are to be created that would allow member countries to use alliance assets for military operations in which the United States does not want to participate. These would operate under the political umbrella of the Western European Union (WEU), grouping the members of the European Union.
The European context in which the summit presented the new-look NATO was the icing on the cake.
Though this "context" finessed it, France had already been carving out its new European security role -- a role based firmly on the alliance. It has made the biggest troop commitment in Bosnia, with 6,000 French soldiers in Sarajevo and four other hot spots -- almost a third of the United Nations force on the ground. With eight dead, French soldiers have also suffered the greatest U.N. losses.
Among the 80 jet fighters dispersed at 10 Italian air bases for possible air strikes in Bosnia, 18 are from France. Three French ships form part of the 20-strong task force in the Adriatic, while the aircraft carrier Clemenceau is on call for air strike capability.
France joined the Adriatic fleet under the auspices of the Western European Union, but it did not hesitate to increase its contribution after the operation came under NATO command. A French AWACS aircraft is assigned to the NATO surveillance operation.
"We all accept that the post-Cold War security threats to Europe do not need a response from the United States," said an adviser to Mr. Mitterrand. "We know that Yugoslavia is not [on] top of the American agenda. But it is a European conflict that threatens us and must be stopped. If we know the U.S. is fully behind us, we can settle it ourselves."
France's Western European Union cover for its new assertive NATO role satisfies its 11 other allies. The Brussels-based Western European Union is a skeletal organization with no forces of its own and is totally reliant on NATO's and its member countries' infrastructures. It has no command structure. But the commanders who sit on its military cell often wear a NATO hat as well. Though it is nominally the "defense arm" of the European Union, that body has no say in the security of its 12 member states.
All this may change in the coming decades. But for the present, the French have no doubt that Europe's defense rests with NATO. A project with Germany to create a Eurocorps -- an envisioned 50,000-member mobile force to be based in Strasbourg -- is, for the present, a quixotic venture. Even though Belgium has agreed to join its ranks and other neighboring states have expressed an interest, Germany's constitution prevents its army from operating beyond its borders -- thus neutralizing half the force's potential firepower.
The French pursuit of this venture is evidence of the country's determination to play a leading role in Western defense.
For the moment, France's initiatives in the security sphere are being welcomed by her allies. The outcome of the NATO summit may revitalize last November's Franco-German peace plan for Bosnia, offering an end to U.N. sanctions against the Serbs in return for a peace agreement.
Under its Western European Union cover, France will be able to fulfill its new NATO role. Western European Union tasks are to include peacekeeping and peacemaking operations on the European continent on behalf of the United Nations -- operations that have thus far fallen uneasily on NATO. With NATO assets and U.S. blessing, newly assertive France hopes to get the alliance again into forward gear.
As French Defense Minister Francois Leotard said: "We want to give the WEU a stronger content. It is a military arm of the European Union." All agree that Bosnia will be the test.