France is ready to help develop and pay for a U.S.-led European anti-missile shield _ but only as a backup, not a replacement, for this country's nuclear deterrent, President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said Friday.
NATO hopes the missile defense can be a key part of its future strategy, and the chief of the alliance argued for its importance during a visit to Paris on Friday.
France's government has questioned the need for an anti-missile shield in the past, and Defense Minister Herve Morin reportedly compared it this week to the Maginot Line, a network of fortifications along France's border with Germany after World War I that famously failed to prevent another German invasion.
On Friday, an official in the president's office said "France is fully for missile defense." He said France is ready to make a "financial and technical contribution" to the effort.
But he added that it would "complement the deterrent."
"For us, the nuclear deterrent is considered essential," he said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity according to presidential policy.
Fellow NATO member Germany has suggested that a European missile defense could pave the way for nuclear disarmament in Europe.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Paris that although disarmament remains a long-term goal, missile defense "would not be a substitute for the nuclear deterrent."
"Missile defense cannot stand alone," he said.
Sarkozy met with Fogh Rasmussen on Friday, and the French president's office said in a statement the two agreed that "as long as nuclear arms exist, the Atlantic alliance will remain a nuclear alliance."
A decision may be reached at a NATO summit in Lisbon next month for a missile defense "adapted to the evolution of the ballistic menace weighing from certain programs in the Middle East," the statement said. Washington has said the shield could protect Europe from potential attacks from Iran or North Korea.
Fogh Rasmussen said he would like Russia to participate in developing the European missile shield, but that Russia has so far not responded to the invitation.
The missile shield and European security are expected to be a key part of a summit next week among Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.