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France displaces Britain as key US military ally

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WASHINGTON (AFP): Once a source of irritation for the United States, France has nudged aside Britain to become the US military's key European partner.

The growing ties between the two militaries were on display this month when France's top military officer, General Pierre de Villiers, hosted his US counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, aboard France's aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

The French flagship, which arrived in the Gulf in February to take part in US-led air strikes on the Islamic State group, is operating under US command -- a first for the French naval forces.

During the carrier's mission, US F-18 fighter jets have touched down on the deck of the De Gaulle and French Rafale fighters have visited American vessels.

On the deck of the carrier, the acrimony that plagued US-French relations 12 years ago over the American invasion of Iraq seemed a distant memory.

The new relationship is reflected in the warm rapport between the top generals, Dempsey and de Villiers, who have forged an "unmistakable" bond, according to Dempsey's spokesman, Colonel Ed Thomas.

"That trust has influenced French and American officers many levels down," he said.

US commanders were also grateful when France took the lead in military operations against Islamist extremists in the Sahel region of Africa, with US forces providing logistical support and drones to back up the effort.

"I think it is quite clear that this is a significant new development," said author Linda Robinson of the RAND Corporation think tank.

"France is coming to the fore in a number of venues because their interests are aligning with US interests."

One French officer boasted to AFP: "France at the moment is the most activist, most engaged European ally."

Over the past decade, France initially sought defence partners inside the European Union but found itself frustrated with Germany's more cautious view of military power.

Paris then promoted a partnership with the British military, but the much-touted effort proved disappointing, said Chris Chivvis, a former Pentagon official.

"In the last two-and-a-half years or so, there's been an increasing shift toward looking to cooperate with the United States," Chivvis said.

The evolution began with France's decision in 2009 to join NATO's integrated command structure, an acknowledgement by Paris that it needed allies to mount operations.

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France  US  Military  Partnership  NATO  UK  
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