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Analysis: France's new president

Can the US work with François Hollande?

Reuters
Text by: Tony Cross
6 min

The White House on Monday said that relations with France will be unaffected by the election of Socialist François Hollande as French president. Hollande is to meet President Barack Obama next week. Will he be welcomed with open arms or given a good talking-to?

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“The alliance is as strong today as it was last week,” White House spokesperson Jay Carney said after Sunday’s defeat of right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

Obama “looks forward to working closely with Mr Hollande and his government on a range of shared economic and security challenges," Carney said in a statement.

But, given that many Americans believed that France was already a socialist country under Sarkozy, will the US’s rulers be alarmed by a man of the French left coming to power?

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Obama got on well with Sarkozy even before either of them stood for president. They met in Washington in 2006, when the Frenchman was interior minister and the American a senator.

Obama, an American liberal, predicted that the French right-winger had a good chance of leading French in the future.

After he was proved right, Sarkozy returned the compliment, receiving Obama at the Elysée Palace and declaring that France would be “very happy” if he was elected.

The mutual backslapping was still going on just 10 days before this year’s French presidential poll, when Obama took part in a video conference with Sarkozy. The French incumbent seized the opportunity to invite a number of reporters along and told his US counterpart, “We will win, Mr Obama, you and me together.”

But some cloudy patches disrupted the idyll.

  • Sarkozy threatened to walk out of a G8 meeting in London in 2009 when Obama pushed the Europeans to take measures to reflate their economies in the wake of the financial crisis;
  • At the UN general assembly in 2011 the two fell out over Palestinian recognition;
  • In November 2011 Obama complained because France had voted for Palestinian representation at Unesco.

Sarkozy’s mandate ended on a positive note, so far as the US was concerned, with Paris and London leading the efforts to support Libyan rebels who unseated Moamer Kadhafi.

Obama will have occasion to meet Hollande several times before he himself faces reelection on 6 November:

  • 18-19 May, G8 summit, Camp David: Leaders of the top industrialised countries will meet at the US’s Camp David retreat and Europe’s fiscal crisis will be a key issue; Hollande wants Europe to boost growth, which ought to please Obama, given the 2009 spat and his own efforts in the US; but Washington seems undecided over austerity today because of its fear of further crisis in the eurozone.
  • 20-21 May, Nato summit, Chicago: Afghanistan is at the top of the agenda and Hollande has said he will pull France’s 3,300 troops out this year, two years ahead of the Nato deadline for handing security over to the Afghans and one year earlier than Sarkozy; so bad marks on that one from Obama, who may also be worried that the French Socialists opposed Sarkozy’s decision to rejoin the military alliance’s integrated command; Hollande has made no clear statement of intent on the question.
  • 18-19 June, G20, Los Cabos, Mexico: Representatives of 20 leading economies will discuss boosting the resources of the International Monetary Fund, whose current head is former French economy minister Christine Lagarde, and the US is likely to refuse to up its contribution because of opposition at home.

 

Washington would probably like more information on Hollande’s policies on the Middle East, a subject that barely came up in the election campaign.

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Sarkozy had promised to go to Israel and the Palestinian Territories and announce an unspecified “initiative” to make 2012 the “year of peace” in the region. All Hollande has committed himself to is a meeting with Israeli Labour Party leader Shelly Yacimovich, who at the time was expecting to contest early elections in September but will now have to wait till next year thanks to the formation of a new coalition government.

There are unlikely to be radical changes in French policy on Syria and Iran, two subjects close to the hearts of the US and Israel. Hollande in April said that France would take part in a military intervention in Syria, if the UN decided on one, and has called for the “greatest firmness” in relation to Tehran’s alleged plans to develop nuclear weapons.
 

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