17 May 2012

Entente cordiale as Hollande flies to meet Obama

The new French president Francois Hollande will meet Barack Obama in the White House, ahead of the G-8 summit at Camp David on Thursday: is a new Franco-American relationship being forged?

Francois Hollande (Getty)

Francois Hollande, asked about how he would address President Obama, in their first meeting in the White House, said he spoke English far more fluently than the outgoing French leader, Nicolas Sarkozy: “But a French president must speak French!” A new relationship, perhaps, but one where France will remain determined to assert its national identity.

President Obama was swift to congratulate his French counterpart on his election, inviting him for a one-to-one chat before other leaders gather for their G8 summit. Hollande’s predecessor was known as “Sarko the American”, who called Obama his “buddy” back in 2008: the new Franco-American relationship may be harder to read.

Francois Heisbourg, from the Institute for Strategic Studies, has described Hollande as a “classic French president: ally of the US but not emotionally involved like Sarkozy, whose attitude to the US was like a hiccup in French foreign policy history”. In other words, he said, things will be more complicated.

Tension points?

But according to the former French European affairs minister Noelle Lenoir, a closer reading of Hollande’s stance on major foreign policy issues reveals there may not be as many points of tension as some experts have feared. True, Hollande has pledged to withdraw all French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, two years ahead of schedule. The US estimates that could cost the French around $150 million to achieve, with a near-impossible logistical challenge to meet the deadline.

The US assistant undersecretary for European affairs, Phillip Gordon, who has already been dispatched to meet Hollande, was reassured: “We’re confident France is committed to NATO and committed to Afghanistan”, he said. And the actual timetable for withdrawal is now likely to be up for discussion at the Camp David summit: election pledges do not reality make.

Hollande’s book, Changing Destiny, which was published in February, reveals that he envisages France as a stable, reliable partner, although one not too closely tied to the United States. Hollande has already supported the allied military intervention in Libya, and joined the condemnation of Syria’s President Assad.

However, he has expressed concerns about France’s decision to rejoin NATO’s integrated command, and said he was “reticent” about the US-backed idea to build a European missile defence shield: before his election win, in March, he said as leader he would not seek to “impose our rhythm on others”.

Mr Pudding

But Hollande, while lacking in any foreign policy experience, is by his very nature a negotiator: a man nicknamed Monsieur Flanby, after a brand of caramel pudding. Contrast that with the highly volatile Sarkozy, who sometimes proved hard to take – Wikileaks has revealed a US cable sent in 2007, which complained: “Just being in a room with Sarkozy is enough to make anyone’s stress levels increase”.

And there is potential common ground on economic policy, too, and the French Socialist’s view that austerity cuts are counterproductive, and what Europe needs is more growth. American conservatives have tried to imply that, by association, Obama is somehow throwing in his lot with a socialist agenda.

But the mood within Europe itself is to seek compromise: Hollande has already discussed his ideas with Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, and both appeared to recognise the need to make concessions over the European Union’s fiscal pact and the future of the Euro.

The last word on the new relationship, perhaps, should go to the French newspaper Liberation, which celebrated both leaders for publicly supporting same-sex marriage with a photoshopped image of Obama and Hollande getting hitched. “They said yes!” proclaimed the headline. The new Franco-American relationship might be close: but probably not that close.