On Patrol, France is NATO

By David Abel  |  Defense Week  |  4/26/1999

NORTH OF KUMANOVO, Macedonia -- Scores of ethnic Albanian children lined the narrow dirt road, raising their fingers in the victory sign as the convoy of French troop carriers ground through their villages to its base hidden in the mountains.

The soldiers packed into the large vehicles wore Kevlar helmets, armor-plated flak jackets and gripped 7 pound Famas assault rifles. Some aimed their weapons from hatches in the roof. Others tossed chocolate bars to their well-wishers.

"NATO, NATO!" the children yelled in support as the stocky Renault-built vehicles passed through one village recently with pink tulips sprouting near a row of red tile-roofed homes.

"It makes me feel good to see them," said Pfc. David Bicuse, 19, on his first trip out of France. "They are happy to see us. We're a force of good. We're here to protect the peace."

The French haven't always been eager to be identified with NATO. But an afternoon on patrol with soldiers from France's 8th Parachute Marine Infantry Division shows how Paris is coming back into the fold. In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle forced NATO to move its headquarters from Paris to Brussels and removed France from the alliance's military command to protest U.S. domination.

The decision, taken in the midst of the Cold War, was the culmination of years of Franco-American rivalry over control of the alliance. Despite the tension, France retained its membership in NATO's political wing and has maintained close military ties to the alliance. Over the years, French forces have taken part in allied exercises, have had a role in NATO air surveillance and have shared military infrastructure such as fuel pipelines and communications. In 1991, France demonstrated its solidarity with NATO countries when President Francois Mitterrand committed French troops to the Gulf War.

Rapprochement didn't begin until shortly after NATO bombed Bosnian Serbs in late summer of 1995-the alliance's first sustained combat operation in its history. A few months later, with 60,000 NATO troops poised to launch the alliance's first peacekeeping mission, President Jacques Chirac decided France would resume attending NATO military meetings. Paris, however, stopped short of rejoining the alliance's integrated military structure.

French leaders say they won't fully join the military wing until Washington agrees to surrender control of NATO's southern military command to a European officer. They believe Europeans should have more power. Allied Forces Southern Europe, which includes the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, has always had an American officer in charge. And the United States has said it won't let its sailors serve under foreign command.

'We are NATO'

Like many of the nearly 2,500 French soldiers serving here in NATO's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, those in France's 8th Parachute Marine Infantry Division consider themselves as much a part of the alliance as soldiers from the United States and Britain. They fly a bright orange swatch of plastic on top of their vehicles to identify themselves as members of NATO, exchange food rations with other alliance members to keep a variety (though, of course, the French say their meals are superior) and at night they hear the same bombs exploding on the other side of the border.

"We are not isolated," said Capt. Eme Paravisini Bruno, who commands the paratroopers and admits nervousness increased among his ranks after Serbs captured three U.S. soldiers. "France is in it with NATO. Our mission is united. We are NATO."

When the convoy of armored personnel carriers rolled into Matejche, a small village on the Macedonian-Kosovo border where one-fourth of the population is ethnic Serbian, the French soldiers heard the same insults reported by Americans and British troops. As the patrol stopped to buy fresh meat on a road separating 100 Serbs and their Orthodox church from 300 ethnic Albanians living beside a mosque, locals emerged from homes and stores to either cheer or jeer the paratroopers.

"It's not just Clinton who is fascist," said Aleksandar Dehevic, 23, an ethnic Serbian farmer certain the Serbs would prevail against the alliance. "Any of the countries in NATO are no better than Hitler. They're terrorists."

A few miles further north into the foothills of the Sar Planina mountains, which separate Macedonia from Kosovo, the convoy arrived at a checkpoint with soldiers donning red berets and machine guns. The guards cleared the personnel carriers to climb a muddy trail that wound through a thicket and opened into the paratroopers' modest camp. On a broad, open slope, scores of soldiers spent the afternoon munching souffles and rationed crackers, cleaning their weapons and smoking cigarette after cigarette.

"We are waiting," said 1st Sgt. Raufauore Etera, 24, watching a pot of tea boil. "Our job is to stay out of danger until we are needed."

The final answer

Like the other 12,000 NATO soldiers spread throughout Macedonia, the paratroopers' mission grows less clear by the day. French troops were dispatched here with a force of only 12 helicopters, 12 light tanks and 29 armored personnel carriers to await a peace agreement. However, as NATO's bombing campaign stretches into its second month and Serbian leaders remain intransigent, it's increasingly unlikely NATO will shift roles from making war to enforcing peace.

"We will do what we are told," said Lt. Baure Christophe, 28. "If our orders change, we will respond."

New orders could include taking part in a ground assault on Serbian forces holding Kosovo, Serbia's embattled southern province. That prospect may have gained currency last week when Chirac said in a televised speech that the alliance should apply "additional means" besides escalating the air war to stop "massacres, rapes, burned villages, families separated and thrown onto the roads."

French officials reportedly said Chirac's statement was an allusion to ground forces, and that France's plan was to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution mandating such a force, though such a request would almost certainly face a Russian veto. Gearing up to return to France's principal base 15 miles from the border in Kumanovo, a loud thud echoed from across the border. High above, against a bright blue sky, two streaks of white condensation streamed from the wings of a NATO fighter.

Capt. Bruno tightened the strap on his camouflaged helmet and secured his flack jacket. After climbing into one of the returning armored personnel carriers and rising through a hatch holding his Famas, he squinted into the distance and pondered the war.

"We hear the reports of atrocities as everyone," Paravisini said. "We want them to stop. Maybe we are the only answer."