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PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Thursday he would follow the United States in starting a gradual troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, a move that could shore up his popularity before a 2012 election.
Sarkozy said troops sent for reinforcement would start returning in a time frame similar to the U.S. force withdrawal. President Barack Obama said Wednesday the United States would pull out 33,000 troops by late 2012.
"France will begin a gradual withdrawal of reinforcement troops sent to Afghanistan, in a proportional manner and in a calendar similar to the withdrawal of American reinforcements," Sarkozy's office said after he spoke to Obama by telephone.
France has about 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, and has seen 62 soldiers killed. It is due to start redeploying and handing over areas it controls to the Afghan military later this year.
NATO leaders agreed in November to end combat operations and hand security responsibility to Afghan forces by end-2014, and Obama vowed to start withdrawing U.S. troops from July 2011.
Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told reporters at the Paris Air Show Thursday that the French withdrawal would start in the coming months, but details would be kept quiet to avoid giving information to Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents.
"It will be significant for 2011 and, like the Americans, we will see this materialize in 2012," he said.
French troops have been involved in the U.S.- and NATO-led Afghanistan operation since 2001 and there is growing frustration in political and public circles with the campaign.
Nearly 10 years after a Taliban government was toppled, foreign forces have been unable to deal a decisive blow that would neutralize the resurgent Islamist militant group. The Afghan government remains weak and notoriously corrupt, and billions of dollars of foreign aid have yielded meager results.
A recent BVA opinion poll following the death of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May showed 55 percent of people in France were in favor of a withdrawal.
Sarkozy is expected to say in the last few weeks of 2011 that he will run for a second term in the April 2012 election.
An early withdrawal from Afghanistan could boost his chances in what looks set to be a tough battle for re-election against a resurgent left, with the far right also eating into his support.
The conservative has been edging back up in opinion polls since his erstwhile rival for 2012, Dominique Straus-Kahn, was knocked out of the race by a sex assault scandal, but he remains one of the least popular French presidents for decades.
"Sarkozy could present himself while announcing a withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Socialist opposition would be hard placed to criticize him about that as it has pushed for a coordinated withdrawal with the United States," French military analyst Jean-Dominique Merchet wrote in a blog.
Sarkozy's office did not say how quickly troops would be moved, but Paris is likely to closely follow Washington's lead.
"Since the start, France has never had its own political and strategic policy in Afghanistan and has followed the Americans," said Karim Pakzad, a researcher at international relations think tank IRIS in Paris.
He noted France sent 700 troops to reinforce the Afghan mission in 2008 at the request of then-U.S. president George W. Bush. "Since the Americans are withdrawing, I don't really see what else France could do. It's American policy that dictates."
Obama said Wednesday he would withdraw 10,000 of his 100,000 troops from Afghanistan by the year's end, followed by another 23,000 by the end of the next U.S. summer and a steady pullout of remaining troops after that.
Merchet said Sarkozy's announcement suggested France could see 400 soldiers brought home by the end of the year and 1,300 more by late 2012.
Segolene Royale, a contender to run for the Socialist Party in 2012, told France 2 television it was a "shame" Paris had followed Washington rather than lead the way.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has described the Afghanistan mission as a "trap" and in May said Paris was considering bringing forward the calendar to withdraw troops from the official 2014 NATO deadline.
Additional reporting by Cyril Altmeyer and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Mark Heinrich