French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Wednesday his country will return to the highest level of military command at NATO after a 43-year absence, a decision that has sparked fierce domestic debate.

Sarkozy made the announcement in a closing address to a high-level military conference in Paris.

The move will return France to NATO's integrated military command — the alliance's central decision-making core.

The French parliament is due to hold a no-confidence vote March 17 on whether to rejoin the military command. Sarkozy's party holds a majority and the vote is unlikely to threaten the government.

But he has had to deal with concerns from both left-wing and conservative elements of parliament that returning to the military command could mean France would cede some of its autonomy and be pulled increasingly into the sphere of U.S. influence.

Sarkozy attempts to ease fears of French subservience

"The time has come to put an end to this situation. It is in the interest of France and in the interest of Europe," Sarkozy said. He insisted that France's "independence won't be in question" — a clear message to critics at home — and said France will maintain control over its nuclear arsenal.

French Defence Minister Hervé Morin, speaking at the conference, argued fervently that rejoining the alliance fully was in France's best interests.

The "renovation of relations of France with NATO will benefit the alliance, benefit Europe and benefit France," Morin said.

He urged France to take on its full responsibilities in the alliance and act like an "adult."

In 1966, president Charles de Gaulle abruptly pulled France out of NATO's military command and evicted all allied troops and bases, including military headquarters, from France in an effort to assert French sovereignty over its own territory.

Although it pulled out of the military command and remains outside the alliance's nuclear group and planning committee, France never left the alliance itself.

Today, it is among the top five contributors to allied military operations and the fourth-largest contributor to alliance budgets for NATO operations.

Upon returning fully to NATO, France expects to receive two command posts, one in Norfolk, Va., responsible for defining the strategic transformation of the alliance and another in Lisbon, Portugal.

With files from the Associated Press