Analysis: France - US

New best friends? Hollande White House visit seals change in France-US relations

Michelle Obama, François Hollande and Barack Obama at the White House dinner on Tuesday
Michelle Obama, François Hollande and Barack Obama at the White House dinner on Tuesday AFP/Brendan Smailowski

As has been widely remarked, François Hollande travelled to the US alone this week. If, for some reason or other, actress Julie Gayet had accompanied him, she could have told Barack Obama about her role in Quai d'Orsay, a film about France's opposition to the US's plan to invade Iraq. And marvelled at the difference with the current French president's relationship with Washington.


Eleven years ago, as Bertrand Tavernier's Quai d'Orsay recalls in a fictionalised version of events, France's then foreign affairs minister, Dominique de Villepin, delivered an elegant speech to the UN General Assembly opposing a call from the US's then president George Bush for international support for the invasion of Iraq.

The Americans were forced to go in without UN backing and the standing of France in the Arab and Islamic world soared.

Then president Jacques Chirac, already popular for getting into a row with Israeli soldiers on a visit to Jerusalem, reaped most of the benefit in the popularity stakes.

French journalists waiting in Jordan for the Iraqi frontier to open were greeted with cries of "Bush, shoes! Chirac on our heads!", referring to the Muslim habit of expressing contempt by acquainting its object with the dusty soles of one's shoes.

The reaction was very different in the US, where tabloids dubbed the French "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and French fries became freedom fries in Congress cafeterias.

Slideshow: François Hollande's visit to the United States

Hollande was treated to caviar, quail's eggs and steak at the White House on Tuesday as he paid the first state visit to the US by a French president for 18 years, the first by a European leader under Obama.

Despite some minor differences, Hollande, a Socialist, is on far friendlier terms with Washington than was Chirac, a right-winger.

That's partly because the Democrat Obama has replaced the Republican Bush in the White House. But it's also true that the thaw began under another right-wing French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

But the degree of entente between Washington and Paris is now such that it's beginning to make British commentators and politicians who pine after a supposed "special relationship" with the world hegemon a little bit jealous.

Why do France and the US now have a "level of partnership [that] would have been unimaginable even a decade ago", as Obama put it?

  • The Middle East: No danger of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius taking the floor against US foreign policy at the moment. Already under Sarkozy France led the charge in toppling Moamer Kadhafi in Libya and Hollande's government has, if
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  • anything, been more aggressive than Obama's administration, eagerly advocating military strikes against Bashar al-Assad's Syria - until Obama backed down, leaving the French high and dry - and temporarily stalling progress on a deal on Iran's nuclear programme. Like Sarkozy, Hollande shares Obama's frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while not actually doing anything to stop Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. If Obama felt obliged to tick off French firms for touting for business in Tehran during Hollande's visit, the French president simply replied that he could not control them. Both countries are great friends with the Gulf monarchies, France transferring its affections from Qatar, the Sarkozy-era favourite, to Saudi Arabia, a great market for weapons even if not really a beacon of enlightenment values.

  • Africa: "From Mali and the Central African Republic to Syria and Iran, you've shown courage and resolve," Obama told Hollande on Tuesday. Washington heartily
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  • approved of Paris's military intervention in Mali and its floundering attempts to restore peace to the Central African Republic. If the US is happy to see French troops face the bullets against the common Islamist enemy, it is also showing more interest in Africa, deploying drones in Somalia, Niger and Mali and withdrawing its unconditional support for Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who used to play anglophones off against francophones. As several African countries experience rapid growth, both Europeans and Americans look nervously at China's growing influence on the continent. That doesn't mean that they aren't competing against each other or that France would take kindly to too much anglophone interest in its former colonies in west Africa.

  • The economy: Having failed to reverse the upward curve of unemployment or the downward curve of his poll ratings, Hollande must have basked in the praise Obama
  • lavished on him. He's also received unaccustomed praise from quarters such as the European Commission for his Responsibility Pact, which is cutting bosses' social security contributions in the hope that they will create jobs and paying for the move with the sort of cuts Socialist supporters thought they were voting against. But, if both presidents have disappointed the left, Obama did manage to push through a version of his health-care reform and launch a reflationary auto bailout, while Hollande has turned to austerity. Meanwhile, French-bashing Americans continue to criticise taxes and state spending here, although US companies were responsible for a fifth of all foreign direct investment in France in 2012.

  • The hard right: Obama may feel some sympathy for Hollande's problems
  • with hard-right protesters opposed to gay marriage, "familyphobia" and "excessive" taxation, having faced the enmity of the Tea Party movement during his first term in office. The French mainstream right's flirting with the hardliners may seem familiar, too, after his confrontation with the Republicans in Congress. He survived that to be reelected, as Hollande must have anxiously reminded himself as he lay down to rest in Washington.

  • Europe: The fact that a US diplomat was taped declaring "fuck the EU" could have
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  • cast a pall over the visit but Hollande chose not to mention it. The fact that the US's National Security Agency snooped on European heads of state and had the capacity to do so to the rest of the population could also have proved an embarassment but Hollande declared that "mutual trust" had been restored. The Obama administration has so much confidence in Socialist Hollande that, according to the Washington Post, it is "looking to France for leadership" in pushing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would establish a transatlantic single market that critics say would allow courts to overrule local legislation that foreign businesses deem contrary to their interests.

A pleasant sojourn for Hollande, then. But once the back-slapping is over it's back to a wintery reality in France, where the eonomic and political problems show no sign of going away.

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