Laurie Dundon is currently living in France and is a PSA Senior Fellow. To read more about her, click here.
A new President, Francois Hollande, was inaugurated in France this week and is already visiting the US just days after coming into office. Hollande rode into office on a slogan that “change is now”. So what does that mean for the US? America and France have been working collaboratively in the last years under President Sarkozy. How will that change?
The short answer: not much. Although the US should expect some policy divergences at first and Hollande could come with a confrontational bravado this weekend — especially on Afghanistan — once President Hollande settles into office, expect more continuity than change. Fundamentally, the US still has a partner in France.
As we will see in the coming days at the G8 and NATO Summits, the US will face some real operational divergences with the new French administration. The NATO Summit will be tricky. Hollande will come with campaign promises that he used to set himself apart from Sarkozy such as expediting France’s withdrawal from Afghanistan with all troops home by the end of this year (a year ahead of schedule), skepticism over missile defense, and considering the reversal of France’s recent return to NATO’s command structure.
At today’s G8 Summit, Hollande will be heavily engaged but could create nervousness with his economic agenda. He has pledged to confront Merkel and reopen the EU’s hard-won pact of austerity measures to fight the financial crisis. The US might not disagree with his growth-oriented approach, but renegotiating the EU’s agreement opens a real Pandora’s box. And if confidence in the European economy bottoms out, there will be real consequences for international markets and the US.
So yes, the first days of working with the new French president will be tricky. Hollande is fresh off a campaign where he was criticized for never having held office before, so he needs to look strong. But once the dust settles and his administration begins to finesse their policies, the US can expect more convergence. Overall, this is not an administration that is anti-America or fundamentally divergent with US priorities. Here are a few signs:
1) Hollande is more or less a centrist. He used all the safe talking points on foreign policy during his campaign — generically pledging to work more with emerging powers, to shift France’s attention to global issues, to actively engage the G20, and to strongly defend human rights. He pledged to “live up to France’s responsibility as an international power,” more or less saying that France will continue what it already does as an active player in the UN Security Council and contributing to international coalitions on security crises. Nothing shocking there.
2) There is plenty of room to shape a common agenda and he has an experienced team to work with. During the campaign, Hollande stated a few positions, but did not really articulate a foreign policy doctrine. Perhaps fairly, he focused on economic issues more than foreign and defense policy. His foreign policy approach will likely be event-driven and shaped as they go. But he appointed foreign policy heavyweights as his foreign and defense ministers — Laurent Fabius and Jean-Yves Le Drian respectively. Both know how to set an agenda and put France boldly into the issues. Hollande’s team is not naive. The transition team made intensive efforts to prepare for the G8 and NATO summits and Iran negotiations, which all occur within his first weeks. They immediately restructured the president’s national security team, turning the one pillar department into three and putting the G8 and global issues on par with other diplomatic issues. There are signs that the team wants to be measured and knowledgeable about their positions. The team is now in the period of defining their own thinking. This is a window of opportunity, and their overall priorities are not too far from America’s.
3) Often, tension between European countries and the US emerges from blunders in atmospherics rather than agenda. We have real differences with Hollande’s campaign promises on Afghanistan and other issues. It will take a lot of nuts and bolts work between our diplomats to navigate them. But it can be done, especially if both sides set the right tone in our dialogue from the outset. In fact, active dialogue is already underway, indicating both sides recognize its importance.
Another encouraging sign is that Hollande generally seems to recognize the value of cooperating with international partners and setting a collaborative tone. He specifically brought people into his team with the relationships to do so, as can be seen with his highly appointed experts on Germany (critical for the coming head-to-heads with Merkel on economics) and Asia (valuable for his G20 and global issues agenda).
Although Hollande may not already have a personal relationship with Obama, they should be able to develop a pragmatic relationship as good as President Sarkozy’s. Sarkozy was known for his US-friendly spirit — a breath of fresh air after the tense days of Chirac and Iraq. But in reality, the honeymoon quickly faded and the relationship between Obama and Sarkozy administrations was far more erratic. Sure, the US worked closely in tandem on issues like Libya and Iran where France’s activism was to be applauded. But Sarkozy could also be an unreliable partner — shooting out ideas, without real follow-through. If the Obama and Hollande administrations can develop a pragmatic relationship, the US should be able to work with Hollande just as well as Sarkozy.
4) The US and new French administration have already started working on their relationship in order to narrow any differences at the start. Wary of public splits at this weekend’s NATO Summit in Chicago, the US rapidly sent envoys to Paris to engage concretely and find practical ways to narrow our differences. (For example, Hollande wants to get all troops out of Afghanistan before the end of the year, but it’s not clear that they could logistically do so. They could perhaps shift to a nuance to bring all combat troops home in 2012 while leaving trainers there until 2013 or find other such practical ways to bridge the gap.) France has traditionally been active at the UN Security Council so it will be easy to continue close collaboration on Syria. And with an experienced Foreign Minister with a track record on human rights issues it is unlikely they will walk back from strong support for civilian repression. On Iran, close US-French coordination within the P5 is on autopilot and much of the personnel at the French foreign ministry roll over from administration to administration. So there is not much reason to change. With a concerted effort, there are plenty of areas where recent US-French cooperation can continue on.
So, the new French president will arrive in the US this weekend surrounded by curiosity. He will be sure to boldly pronounce French interests and may even appear a bit confrontational at the NATO summit because of Afghanistan. There will be positions at the outset of a new French presidency that are not helpful to the US. But these are early days. Hollande’s team is just getting into place and only starting to concretely and specifically define their policies. There is plenty of space for collaboration, an experienced and centrist team, and plenty of issues where our interests still align. With tightening budgets, an overwhelming international agenda, and overstretched militaries, both sides know that collaboration and burden-sharing is essential. US-French cooperation has been concrete and effective in the last years. France has a new leader visiting today, but there is still plenty of reason to expect an open and collaborative relationship to continue.