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French General Abrial named supreme commander

Text by Marie Sophie JOUBERT

Latest update : 2009-09-11

A general in the French Air Force, Stéphane Abrial, has officially become one of NATO’s two supreme allied commanders. He is the first non-American ever to hold the job.

Stéphane Abrial, a French Air Force general, took over as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, in Norfolk, Virginia, in the US on Wednesday.


Abrial said that his appointment contained "enormous symbolic value" which recognises France’s “importance in the alliance” and “military know-how and experience”. It is something that the 55-year-old can be happy about; for the first time since NATO was created in 1949, a European has become one of its two supreme commanders, the highest military posts in the organization.


“I hope that France is going to play a key role as a driving force in NATO,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s Secretary General, who attended the landmark ceremony on September 9.


Certainly, the choice of Abrial is a form of accolade for Paris and Brussels – a recompense for France’s return to full membership status earlier this year. This trophy, however, could change into a poisoned chalice as Abrial takes charge of an arduous position.


Unassailable resumé


As prestigious as his new position is, Abrial will have no chance to rest. He is inheriting the difficult task of defining NATO’s general strategy for the next decade. “His strategy will have to be appropriate for a very unstable world,” explains Professor Luc Sauron, a specialist in European Union law at Dauphine University, Paris.


General Abrial, does, however, seem ready to take on the new job. He is known to be a hard worker and is endowed with a great physical stamina. Often described as affable, cheerful, and charismatic, he nevertheless keeps his ‘sang-froid’, never showing his emotions.


His CV is flawless: a graduate of France's Air Force Academy in 1973, he earned his fighter pilot wings in 1976. He also had a year-long stint as an exchange cadet at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado. Much of his career has been spent overseas, including as a flight commander north of Munich, Germany and as a detachment commander in Greece in the 1980s.


In 2000, he was promoted to the post of assistant to the head military collaborator of the French president’s chief of staff, and then two years later became the head of the prime minister’s military cabinet.


These two jobs taught him the mysteries of politics, which would serve him in the future. “That’s the way it is in NATO, too,” says Sauron. “France sent one of its best,” he explains, “Abrial is not just a soldier; he understands world politics, and its constraints.”


Abrial’s career path - political and above all resolutely European - explains, among other reasons, why NATO chose him for this high-level job.


“Finally, the Americans have understood that if they want their allies to share in the tasks and the costs of NATO, they need to assign some important positions,” Sauron concludes.


Date created : 2009-09-11