Obama rolls out red carpet for Hollande as Franco-American relations get back on track

French president’s visit seen as olive branch after Syrian debacle

The French flag flies along with the US flag and the flag of the District of Columbia in front of the White House in Washington ahead of the state visit of  French president François Hollande . Photograph: Reuters

The French flag flies along with the US flag and the flag of the District of Columbia in front of the White House in Washington ahead of the state visit of French president François Hollande . Photograph: Reuters


US president Barack Obama is known to dislike ceremony and protocol. In five years, he has held only six state dinners at the White House, a fraction of the number given by the Reagans, Clintons and the first Bush administration.

But Obama has offered French president François Hollande a three-day state visit with all the trimmings. Yesterday the two leaders flew on Air Force One to Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, the most Francophile of US presidents.

They will meet again at the White House this morning before holding a joint press conference. Hollande will be treated to a 21-gun salute and a state dinner for 300 people tonight, the first for a French president in 18 years.

Obama and Hollande barely know each other. The previous French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, annoyed Obama with his theatrical intimacy. That’s not Hollande’s style. Like Obama, Hollande is slow to take decisions, enamoured of compromise and consensus to the point of inaction, and difficult to get to know.

So why is Obama showing such courtesy to a European leader whose approval rating is stuck at 19 per cent? French media are unanimous in portraying it as a consolation prize, a way of apologising to Hollande for leaving him in the lurch last August 31st.

French pilots were ready to take off to bomb Syria when Obama called Hollande to say he was cancelling because he needed to consult Congress. The aborted Franco-American air raids had been intended to punish Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons.

Hollande needed
Hollande is not the first politician Obama has let down. But Obama needs the French right now. The US president knows how hard it has been to extract the US military from Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is allergic to foreign intervention, while al-Qaeda-linked groups proliferate across the Middle East, Sahara and Sahel.

British prime minister David Cameron’s hands have been tied by the British parliament. German chancellor Angela Merkel refuses to get involved.

That leaves France, the former colonial power in these volatile regions. Fortunately for Obama, Hollande and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, have shown a fervour for military intervention – the aborted Syrian mission, Mali and the Central African Republic – comparable to that of US neo-conservatives.

Former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine often describes Franco-American relations as “friends, allies but not aligned”. Those relations reached a low point over the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, but today Paris and Washington are arguably aligned.

Notwithstanding their hurt over the Syrian debacle, France was the only country eager to intervene alongside the US. In negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme last autumn, Fabius was so hawkish that he won praise from John McCain for denouncing a “fool’s game” with Tehran.

Merkel still harbours a grudge over the NSA’s spying on her, but France – which engages in similar activities – merely shrugged off Edward Snowden’s revelations.

There are even reports that France may be invited to join the “five eyes club” in which the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share intelligence and refrain from spying on each other.

“France is always posturing,” says Axel Krause, contributing editor to TransAtlantic magazine and an observer of Franco-American relations for 30 years. “They’re posturing over the exception culturelle in transatlantic trade talks, over [the taxation of] Google and Airbus [in competition with Boeing], but it’s difficult to find issues where France and the US really disagree.”

Mutual disquiet
Nicole Bacharan, a leading expert on Franco-American relations at Stanford University, nonetheless notes sources of mutual disquiet: “The Americans don’t trust the way Hollande is running the French economy, which is a pivot of the European economy, and the French are alarmed to see the US disengaging from the rest of the world.”

By visiting Silicon Valley and meeting US business executives, Hollande hopes to rev erse France’s reputation as a business-hostile environment.

But US media coverage looks certain to focus on Hollande’s private life. On the eve of his visit, the New York Times published a front-page article titled “French Breakup Makes a Dinner Harder to Do”, about the protocol dilemmas created by Hollande’s rupture with Valérie Trierweiler.

The White House had to reprint engraved invitations sans Trierweiler’s name.

“Should there be dancing if the romantically complicated guest of honour has no one to dance with?” the Times asked.

And who will sit next to Obama tonight? Three women cabinet ministers are travelling with Hollande. Another possibility is IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, with whom Hollande dined at the French ambassador’s residence last night.

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