updated 3/11/2009 2:45:19 PM ET 2009-03-11T18:45:19

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Wednesday it's time for France to rejoin NATO's military command after 43 years away, rejecting opposition from compatriots who fear the move hands over too much national sovereignty to the alliance.

Sarkozy said he would write to other NATO members to announce his decision after a parliamentary debate on the move next week.

In a speech Wednesday, Sarkozy insisted that France's "independence won't be in question" — a clear message to critics at home — and said France will maintain control over its nuclear arsenal.

In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle abruptly pulled France out of the NATO command and evicted all allied troops and bases, including its military headquarters, from France in an effort to assert sovereignty over its own territory.

De Gaulle's blunt assertion of French independence at the height of the Cold War came as a shock at the time and caused a rift with Washington that continues even today.

France is a NATO member, but has remained outside the central decision-making core.

"The time has come to put an end to this situation," he said, arguing that new threats require greater international military cooperation, not less.

Move was expected
Sarkozy has long promised the step and is expected to formalize it with a letter to NATO's leadership before a summit April 3-4 in Strasbourg to celebrate the alliance's 60th anniversary.

But he faces intense political opposition at home over the move from opposition leftists and some Gaullist conservative members of his own party, both of whom are wary of Sarkozy's pro-U.S. tilt and fear it will limit France's ability to decide its own policies.

"Because it's in her interest, because it's her choice, France will occupy her full place in this trans-Atlantic partnership: A free ally, an ally in solidarity, an independent ally, a committed ally," he said.

"I hope you understand, this decision will be the finalization of a process," he said.

While Sarkozy does not need parliamentary approval for the move, his government will face a no-confidence vote in parliament next week on the subject after a parliamentary debate.

"This process of rapprochement with NATO is but a stone in a vaster process that aims to strengthen and develop the nation's independence," he said. "After taking note of the result of the debate, I will write to our allies to inform them of my decision."

Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry said Wednesday that "nothing" justified what she called Sarkozy's hasty quest for closer ties with NATO.

NATO sees win-win
Sarkozy spoke at the end of a daylong conference in which French officials staunchly defended the country's anticipated return into NATO's integrated military command.

"The Americans understand perfectly well that having weak allies serves nothing," he said.

"European defense will be stronger" if France rejoins the NATO military command, he added.

NATO's leadership is eager for a greater French role.

"NATO would welcome this step," alliance spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels, calling it a "win-win situation" that would bolster European defense.

France's decision to rejoin the military command is unlikely to stir up too much emotion, especially since French troops have been participating in NATO missions since the mid-1990s, including those in Bosnia, Kosovo and now Afghanistan. Today, France is among the top five contributors to allied military operations and the No. 4 benefactor to alliance budgets for NATO operations.

Upon returning fully to NATO, France expects to receive two command posts, one in Norfolk, Virginia, responsible for defining the strategic transformation of the alliance and another in Lisbon, Portugal.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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