Troop withdrawal plan may meet resistance

Thu, May 17, 2012, 01:00

FRENCH PRESIDENT François Hollande will make his first foray into global diplomacy tomorrow when he meets US president Barack Obama before joining up with world leaders for G8 and Nato summits.

Mr Hollande, who travelled to Berlin to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel within hours of being sworn in as president on Tuesday, could face resistance from Nato partners to his election pledge to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

He will be at the White House tomorrow morning for a bilateral discussion with Mr Obama ahead of a G8 meeting at Camp David and a Nato summit in Chicago.

Mr Hollande sought during his election campaign to differentiate his stance from Nicolas Sarkozy’s Atlanticism, saying he would be a reliable ally for Washington but would not be tied to it.

His foreign policy positions are substantially very close to Mr Sarkozy’s, however. The Socialist Party supported key Sarkozy decisions such as military interventions in Libya and Ivory Coast, and has taken a virtually identical stance on Iran and Syria.

Mr Hollande has said he would back military intervention in Syria if there was a United Nations Security Council mandate and supports tougher sanctions on Iran to avoid military escalation.

The greatest source of tension between Mr Hollande and his counterparts will be Afghanistan. The new president has promised to withdraw all French troops by the end of the year – 12 months earlier than Mr Sarkozy had planned.

That has already earned him a rebuke from Dr Merkel, whose country has the third largest troop contingent in Afghanistan. She said last week that Nato allies had joined the war at the same time and should leave together.

France has 3,400 troops in Afghanistan, 14 helicopters, 900 vehicles and 1,400 containers that would need to be shipped out. It would need to negotiate permission from Uzbekistan and Pakistan for road passages as well as agreements to hire planes large enough to carry such loads.

Nato allies have not given up trying to force Mr Hollande to back down. The Obama administration last week sent a delegation led by assistant undersecretary for European affairs Philip Gordon to meet Mr Hollande’s team to discuss Nato.

“Let him study the issues, put his cabinet together. We’ll have a chance in Paris to talk about some of these,” Mr Gordon said before flying to Paris.

“We’re confident France is committed to Nato and committed to Afghanistan.” The socialist former foreign minister Hubert Védrine indicated last week that Mr Hollande could seek a compromise, saying the aim would be to unveil a timetable without embarrassing Mr Obama.

After coming to power in 2007, Mr Sarkozy reversed decades of French policy by bringing France back into Nato’s integrated military command. Mr Hollande has expressed reservations about that decision but has stopped short of saying he will go back on it.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, a close Hollande ally who was appointed defence minister yesterday, said France would seek reassurances on existing demands for a greater say in Nato.