PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday he would follow the United States in starting a gradual troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, a move likely to boost him before a 2012 election campaign.
Sarkozy said troops sent for reinforcement would start returning in a time frame similar to the U.S. force withdrawal. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday the U.S. planned to pull out 33,000 troops by next summer.
"Given the progress we have seen (in Afghanistan), France will begin a gradual withdrawal of reinforcement troops sent to Afghanistan, in a proportional manner and in a calendar comparable to the withdrawal of American reinforcements," a statement issued by Sarkozy's office said following a telephone call with Obama.
France, which has about 4,000 troops in Afghanistan and seen 62 soldiers killed, has said it would begin redeploying and handing over areas it controls to the Afghan military in 2011.
Obama said he would withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by year's end, followed by about 23,000 by the end of next summer and a steady pullout of remaining troops after that.
Sarkozy's decision could be another boost to his 2012 presidential election campaign. He has been edging slowly back up in the polls although he remains one of the least popular French presidents in recent history.
French troops have been involved in the U.S.- and NATO-led Afghanistan operation since 2001 and there is growing frustration in political circles with the long campaign.
Nearly 10 years after the Taliban government was toppled, foreign forces have been unable to deal a decisive blow to the resurgent Islamist militant group. The Afghan government remains weak and notoriously corrupt, and billions of dollars in foreign aid efforts have yielded meager results.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has described the mission as a "trap" and in May said Paris was considering bringing forward the calendar to withdraw troops forward from the official 2014 NATO deadline.
"In consultation with the government, the president confirmed that France remained fully committed with its allies alongside the Afghan people to bring to its conclusion the transition process," Sarkozy's statement said.
It did not say how many troops would be withdrawn initially.
(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Mark Heinrich)