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France is to "rejoin" NATO, an alliance it never really left. Let me explain...

Despite heated criticism at home, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has finally announced his intention to return France to NATO’s integrated command after 43 years.

Sarkozy will formally announce the move, expected for some time, at a summit meeting to mark NATO’s 60th anniversary on April 3 and 4, which is being co-hosted by France and Germany.

By way of explanation: A former French president, Charles de Gaulle, abruptly pulled his country out of the NATO command structure in 1966, insisting that it was the only means to preserve French independence, given his feeling that the alliance was too dominated by the Americans. He even went as far as to kick the NATO headquarters out of Paris and expel allied soldiers from France.

Sarkozy’s critics say that the threat to French independence inside NATO is just as real today, and that the president is merely trying to curry favor with the Obama administration.

But since France never stopped providing troops for NATO missions — it remains the fourth largest contributor — Sarkozy counters that Paris should also be at the table when decisions are made about planning and execution of joint operations.

He promises that France still can and will oppose any action it chooses, and that being integrated into the command structure will give a French position more weight. Further, the reintegration does not involve France’s nuclear program: That will remain independent of NATO decision-making.

In addition, the president has reportedly negotiated key posts for French military officials. These include leadership roles in the “Allied Command Transformation Project” in Norfolk, Va. and the regional command headquarters in Lisbon, Portugal.

The French parliament will debate Sarkozy’s decision and take a confidence vote early next week, but he does not legally need the approval. Opinion polls conducted by newspapers show a majority of citizens support him.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was certainly pleased to hear of Sarkozy’s announcement. Saying he “warmly" welcomed the decision that “should lead France to resume its full place,” de Hoop Scheffer said France’s “full participation in all the civil and military decision-making and planning processes cannot but strengthen the Alliance further.”

And on a slightly more frivolous note — which is simply too juicy not to recount — it appears that Sarkozy has already asserted additional unilateral powers over NATO decision-making. While the seating of representatives at summits is traditionally done alphabetically by country name, the French president last month created quite a bit of chaos when he demanded that he be situated immediately to the right of de Hoop Scheffer at the upcoming summit — or else he might boycott the ceremonies that his own country is to co-host.

After much angst among summit planners, Sarkozy was ultimately placated with a deal in which he could sit on the Secretary General's right — along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the other summit host, on the left — whenever there are cameras in the room.

Once the photo op is over, everyone will go to their “real” seats, under the uncompromising command of the ABCs.