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Sarkozy's Opposition Critical of Troop Increase

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

As we just heard, France has agreed to send more troops to Afghanistan - hundreds, says President Nicolas Sarkozy. And they'll go to the more volatile region in the east of the country. Sarkozy's decision is welcome news to his NATO allies, but bad news to many in France. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Today's announcement wasn't exactly a surprise. A French troop increase in Afghanistan has been in the cards for months, and Sarkozy confirmed it during his state visit to Britain last week.

NICHOLAS SARKOZY: (Through Translator) We cannot accept a return of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Kabul. Defeat is out of the question.

BEARDSLEY: Most of the 1,600 French troops already in Afghanistan operate in the relatively safe area around the Afghan capital of Kabul. Tomas Valasek, the director of foreign policy at the London-based Center for European Reform, says the additional French soldiers may not change much on the ground, but they're a shot in the arm for NATO.

TOMAS VALASEK: NATO will certainly be delighted to hear that the French are reinforcing their troops because the whole idea of one for all and all for one seemed to be put to a test in Afghanistan when some countries like Holland and Canada, who are losing people and in the south, are not being helped and reinforced by others from other parts of Afghanistan. That has put a real strain on the alliance, and mostly on the alliance solidarity.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy's decision has angered the opposition back home, where the troop increase wasn't put to a vote in Parliament. While the French Constitution gives the President the right to make such decisions, the fact that Sarkozy first unveiled his plan to the British Parliament has added insult to injury. And opposition socialists accuse Sarkozy of being Bush's latest lap dog. Analyst Jean-Bernard Cadier with News Channel France 24 says Sarkozy has to walk a fine line in Afghanistan.

JEAN, Host:

(Through Translator) Rapprochement with America is always a delicate question in France. A poll out this week shows 68 percent of French people are hostile to a troop reinforcement. That's like the 70 percent who are opposed to the war in Iraq. Obviously, the French government doesn't want a movement against the war in Afghanistan like the one against Iraq.

BEARDSLEY: By answering NATO's call for more troops, analysts say Sarkozy is also preparing the ground for French reintegration into NATO, 42 years after Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the alliance's command structure. And Sarkozy, like his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, wants a stronger EU Defense force. But unlike Chirac, says foreign policy analyst Tomas Valasek, Sarkozy does not believe that European defense and NATO are at odds.

VALASEK: President Sarkozy is essentially saying I don't see the world in the same way that President Chirac did. I do think that NATO and the EU are fully compatible. I want France to be full member of both organizations. I am not going to play political games with NATO. I am going to make France do what a big power should be doing in NATO.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

MONTAGNE: And you can read more about what's important to the U.S. at this NATO summit at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.