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France and NATO

Did you know that France hosted NATO for 15 years? And that although it withdrew from NATO’s military structure in 1966, it remained an Ally? What was President de Gaulle's rationale? How did that arrangement work in practice? What was France’s role within the Alliance during the Cold War period?

The exclusive concern of France is to make impossible any invasion of her own territory or the territory of peace-loving nations.

From Robert Schuman’s speech at the signing ceremony of the North Atlantic Treaty, 4 April 1949

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, France was among the strong believers in a Western defence structure and therefore one of the Alliance’s founding members. France’s main concern was the protection of its territories and an immediate commitment of military resources. Both were carried out very early on. Being an influential power, France secured a clause in the North Atlantic Treaty that included the “Algerian Departments of France” – a provision that no longer held once Algeria gained independence in 1962.


In 1949, when the 12 Allies made a pledge to collective defence through the North Atlantic Treaty, getting to know each other was going to enable them to work more effectively together. While bonds were being created during daily interaction at the civilian and military headquarters of the Organization, films were created to get citizens engaged too. “Introducing France” is an illustration of this effort; it gives a candid depiction of France in the 1950s.

In parallel, eminent photographers sometimes lent their talents to portraying the daily life of French citizens, be they factory workers, cabaret dancers or youngsters at play, as shown in the photo gallery below.

Uniforms of France

On the military front, posters of each of the member countries’ military forces were distributed to help allies recognise one other more easily.


As the Alliance moved from signatures to a truly working organisation with a military capacity, NATO decided to move from its modest headquarters at 13 Belgrave Square in London to the glamourous setting of Palais de Chaillot, Paris, facing the emblematic Tour Eiffel. Mainland Europe was considered to be the best place to construct a united defence effort for the Allies. And Paris, where the United Nations often met, also stood as the symbol of the historical and cultural values the Alliance was – and still is – designed to preserve. Ninety tons of office equipment and furniture were flown across the Channel, rather than shipped, to avoid disrupting daily business. It was the largest furniture removal operation ever undertaken in Britain by air.


Meanwhile, the Alliance's military structures were being assembled. The defence arm of the Western Union was already stationed in France. Since September 1948, the military headquarters was housed in the elegant Château de Fontainebleau , under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. It was called the Western Union Defence Organisation. The Western Union itself had been established in March 1948 when Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom signed the Brussels Treaty in response to an American request for greater European cooperation. Once NATO was formed, the Western Union transferred its defence responsibilities to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe – or SHAPE. The building was constructed in a record time of three months, saving staff from having to balance type-writers on wash basins and squeeze into makeshift meeting rooms in the Hotel Astoria on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, where they had temporarily set up base. (see: How SHAPE took shape). Field Marshal Montgomery became NATO's first Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe on 2 April 1951, the date on which NATO's new permanent military headquarters was activated in Rocquencourt, west of Paris. As Dwight D. Eisenhower stated in his inaugural speech:



Other facilities followed such as the first international school ever to be constructed on French soil for the children of military personnel from SHAPE. The Lycée International de l'OTAN became an international melting pot that still exists today as the Lycée international de Saint-Germain-en Laye (see: Teaching NATO's children: the first SHAPE school in Rocquencourt). In 1952, a 40-hectare fallout bunker with a capacity for 1,000 military personnel was built in a quarry under the Saint-Germain-en-Laye forest. And later on, the first iteration of the NATO Defense College conceived to train officers was also in Paris, before it moved to Rome. NATO's presence in the French capital was even depicted on one of the city's most iconic luxury goods: the Hermès silk square or carré Hermès. NATO commissioned a limited number of scarves featuring the Alliance for distribution at a Council meeting (more on NATO's Hermès silk scarf).

French sliced bread?

In Châteauroux, the Americans set up their largest military base. Paul Picard, son of a baker, was inspired to create a French version of the sliced bread he saw American soldiers eating on the base. He called it Harry's and chose stars and stripes for the wrapping.

To help accustom French citizens to the presence of foreign troops on their territory, films like À votre service
(in French) were shown in cinemas.

While NATO's presence on French territory was embraced by the French population, initiatives to inform younger generations about NATO and its value still continued. The Atlantic Treaty Association of France (a non-governmental organisation that was formed to explain NATO policies) organised, for instance, summer schools; NATO's Information and Press Office also organised exhibitions for the general public such as the one in Paris on the Atlantic Alliance.


Suffering caused by the Second World War and even the First World War was still very fresh in people's minds, as was the fear of German resurgence. Sensitivities were particularly high in France so the will to integrate Germany into European structures resonated very strongly in French political circles. Robert Schuman, Minister of Foreign Affairs (1948-1952), was the visionary who jump-started the concept of European unity through European collaboration on coal and steel production in what became the legendary "Schuman Declaration" of 9 May 1950. The Chancellor of West Germany at the time, Konrad Adenauer, said of the declaration:

That is our breakthrough.

While the European Coal and Steel Community was being created (1951), French Defence Minister René Pleven produced the Pleven Plan (1950) that envisaged the creation of a European Defence Community, which would include Germany. This European solution to integrating Germany into European structures failed. Yet a solution was needed… With the outbreak of the Korean War and fear of further communist expansion, NATO had decided to engage in a "forward strategy", which meant that it wanted to place its defences as far east of Europe as possible. This meant that NATO would either have to provide more troops to defend Europe, or Germany would have to participate and therefore rearm… or both. Eventually, the principle of inviting West Germany to join NATO was accepted, but it was not until 1954 that the modalities were worked out.

"A" for Alliance

In the 1950s, the formation of the Warsaw Pact and the crushing of the Hungarian uprising embodied the ideological radicalisation between the Soviet Union and the United States, and impressed on the Allies the value of their collective defence organisation. Plans went ahead for a purpose-built headquarters for the Alliance – and it was made to show too: the headquarters at Porte Dauphine was designed by architect Jacques Carlu in the shape of an "A" for Alliance. Building started in 1955 and the move took place in 1959. For more information on NATO's homes since its creation in 1949.

The Parisians quickly forgot about the comings and goings of muddy trucks in one of the chicest areas of the city and NATO delegations and staff settled down in the brand new headquarters. But only a few years later, a political storm started to brew – a storm of a scale yet unknown to the Alliance. In 1956, the Suez Crisis had shown considerable divergence between London, Paris and Washington D.C. The event that was to follow was unprecedented.


In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command structure (a decision that was reversed in 2009). Charles de Gaulle expressed a desire for greater military independence, particularly vis-à-vis the United States. This materialised in the refusal to integrate France’s nuclear deterrent or accept any form of control over its armed forces, and the removal of all foreign forces from its territory. In practical terms, while France remained a NATO member and fully participated in the political instances of the Organization, it was no longer represented on certain committees like the Nuclear Planning Group and the Defence Planning Committee. Foreign forces were removed from French territory and French forces temporarily withdrawn from NATO commands. The stationing of weapons - including nuclear weapons - was banned and furthermore, NATO’s political headquarters and SHAPE moved to neighbouring country Belgium. The move, incidentally, inspired film director Gérard Oury to produce “Le cerveau”, a heist comedy in which competing villains seek to rob the train carrying the “secret funds” of 14 NATO members as it travels from Paris to Brussels (for more info on this theme, see: NATO in Cold War spy thrillers)

Charles de Gaulle was one of the most prominent French politicians of the 20th century. Admired by his compatriots for leading the French Resistance during the Second World War and defending the interests of France when he formed the Provisional Government of the French Republic in 1944, he was also the architect of France's current political constitution. For many, he embodied the republican principles that forged post-war France and, to this day, remains an emblematic figure.

The schism France's withdrawal from the integrated military structure created within the Organization was compounded by the Washington Treaty's 20-year mark outlined in Article 13. The Treaty stipulated that after 20 years, any Party could cease to be a member. This created a malaise within the Alliance and was brought to the table for discussion at the North Atlantic Council – NATO's top political decision-making body – but did not bear any consequences. Article 13 and President Charles de Gaulle's decision did not stop NATO from moving forward and France's status becoming mainstream.


France continued to play a key role within the Alliance throughout the Cold War. French naval and air forces participated in NATO exercises and it took part in joint procurement projects such as NADGE. NADGE (NATO Air Defence Ground Environment) was a high-performing radar system conceived to detect high-speed enemy aircraft and, if necessary, destroy them. It consisted of an unbroken chain of stations running from Norway to Turkey and provided a powerful barrier against the intrusion of enemy aircraft into the NATO European airspace. France needed this highly efficient alert system to complement its nuclear capability. While SHAPE supervised the entire NADGE system, each country was responsible for its own geographic area, and with the exception of an emergency, NADGE installations and air defence weapons and forces remained under national control (see Air defence in a supersonic age).

France also continued to host NATO meetings and staff the civilian structures of the Organization. One nomination, however, became notorious and muddied the waters within NATO Headquarters for a while: a French member of staff called Georges Pâques spied for the Soviet Union for almost 20 years. He was strategically positioned within the international staff as deputy head of the Press Service and had access to high-level meetings and sensitive documents. He was apprehended by the French Intelligence Service in 1963 (see The Pâques Affair).

The “Mitterrand door”

President Mitterrand in the conference room in question Before the 1988 Summit in Brussels, the security services of President François Mitterrand contacted the Organization to have an emergency exit installed in one of the meeting rooms where the President was scheduled to give a press conference. NATO's construction services had to scramble to complete the work, because the French President would only attend the Summit if this request was accepted. This door in the previous Brussels Headquarters was informally referred to by staff as the "Mitterrand door" (photo: President Mitterrand in the conference room in question).


During Allied discussions, France traditionally adopted – and still does - a very thorough, analytical approach. While sometimes this approach goes against the tide, it often ensures that all aspects of an issue have been taken into consideration before a decision is reached – an approach very much engrained in its culture. Additionally, the spirit of Gaullism continued to permeate French strategic thinking throughout the Cold War. This did not exclude France from NATO military affairs. For instance, in August 1967, the Ailleret-Lemnitzer Accords were signed enabling the French Army to participate in a potential NATO military operation against the east while staying under national command. Later, in July 1974, the Valentin-Ferber Accords helped to bring France closer to NATO. They provided for a number of scenarios whereby the French Army could move forward towards the east, which meant maintaining the complete integrity of the NATO area. President Mitterrand is the president who started to lead France back into NATO's integrated military command structure in the late 1980s and 1990s, a trend that his successor President Jacques Chirac continued. In 1991, for instance, France approved the Alliance's Strategic Concept, something it had not done since it had left the integrated military structure in 1966.

While France reintegrated the military command structure in 2009, its position throughout the Cold War illustrated the flexibility of NATO membership: while the country maintained full nuclear autonomy, it continued to act in full solidarity with the other Allies and play a major political and military role within the Alliance.