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By Lisa Bryant
Paris
01 April 2008

The day before a key NATO summit in Bucharest, the French government announced Tuesday it would send several hundred troops to reinforce the alliance's operation in Afghanistan. Lisa Bryant reports for VOA from Paris.

The decision by center-right government to send more soldiers to Afghanistan is highly controversial in France - with the opposition Socialist party strongly criticizing it during a parliamentary debate Tuesday. A recent poll also showed 68 percent of French opposed sending any new troops to Afghanistan.

French PM Francois Fillon  speaks during a debate at the French National Assembly in Paris, 01 Apr 2008
French PM Francois Fillon  speaks during a debate at the French National Assembly in Paris, 01 Apr 2008
But French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told lawmakers the troops were vital in a country where NATO soldiers are fighting a fierce Taliban insurgency. He said if France withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, it would mean Paris no longer assumes its responsibilities and breaks with its allies. It would mean France is indifferent to Afghanistan's fate.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced last week that Paris would reinforce its 1,600 troops on the ground in Afghanistan - but the several hundred troops suggested by his prime minister appears considerably lower than 1,000 French troops speculated in the media.

But Frederic Bozo, a NATO specialist and professor at Sorbonne University in Paris, said the troop reinforcement would be welcome by NATO leaders who meet in Bucharest Wednesday.

"I think France's gesture will be much appreciated by the U.S. and by the allies who are doing a vast [amount of work] in Afghanistan," he said. "The bottom line is France is going to make a difference by sending those troops.

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan (2006 photo)
Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan (2006 photo)
Canada, for one, has made its own continuing presence in Afghanistan partly contingent on other countries supplying 1,000 more troops.

In another NATO-related development, Prime Minister Fillon said Paris would not support bids by Georgia and Ukraine to join that Atlantic alliance. Washington has been pushing their membership, but several European countries, including

France and Germany, have expressed reservations, in part because of Russia's opposition.

President Sarkozy has also suggested France may ultimately rejoin NATO military wing, but professor Bozo, for one, believes no movement in that direction will be made during this week's NATO summit. He says Paris is unlikely to make a firm decision on rejoining until early next year.

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