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Hollande and Obama: Friends in need

© Photo: AFP

Text by Douglas HERBERT

Latest update : 2014-02-10

For a down-on-his-luck leader such as François Hollande, this week's state visit to the US - the first by a French president since 1996 - is just what the spin doctor ordered at a time when Hollande's approval rating has sunk to a new historic low.

Foreign leaders have long been known to lobby hard for the honour of a US state visit and a chance for some of that Obama stardust to rub off.

But that was when Obama had stardust to spare.

The NSA scandal has done much to tarnish his reputation abroad – so much so that Brazil's spied-upon president, Dilma Roussef, cancelled her planned state visit in protest.

Back home, the US president's popularity has also plummeted after a gruelling year that has seen a hostile Congress stymie his agenda at every turn.

For many, and not just his detractors, the onetime harbinger of hope for millions of hard-pressed Americans has morphed into a hapless lame duck reduced to governing by executive order in the name of getting anything done.

'Can he fix France?'

But for all that, Obama on a bad day is still Obama: his worst speeches – the words, if not the deeds – can rouse and inspire in a way that Hollande's best orations never will. (CNN's political consultant, Alex Castellanos, opined after the US president's recent State of the Union address that "a speech by Barack Obama is a lot like sex, the worst there ever was is still excellent.")

On the eve of Hollande's departure for Washington, Time magazine ran a cover story featuring a grim-faced headshot of Hollande, alongside the question, "Can he fix France?"

Most French these days seem to have a ready answer: "No."

Hollande touches down on Monday at Andrews Air Force base for a three-day visit which, in addition to the Washington leg, will also take him on a cross-country scouting mission to the mecca of high-tech, Silicon Valley.

But the marquee event will be the official White House welcoming ceremony on Tuesday.

You can expect a trumpets-blaring bonanza, as called for by State Visit protocol, complete with a 21-cannon salute, a military troop review and a stopover at Arlington National Cemetery to pay respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. All of it culminating, later that evening, in a black-tie, porcelain-clinking state dinner hosted by Barack and Michelle.

(On Monday, Hollande will also get to fly shot-gun aboard Air Force One with Obama for the 200-kilometer trip from the US capital to Charlottesville, Virginia, to the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson, an avid francophone and francophile who was one of the earliest American envoys to France before his election as third US president.)

Shared history, common values

Officially, the White House requested the State Visit. And of course, the French president more than gladly accepted, with both sides jumping at the – again, official – opportunity to stress their "shared history" and "common values" as the oldest of transatlantic allies.

The Franco-American relationship is one in which both sides are forever harking back to the war – the US Revolutionary War, that is – as a testament to the solidity of their friendship through thick and thin.

Which is not to say this visit will be a diplomatic cake walk. Behind closed doors, the two presidents are likely to politely spar over NSA snooping and data-protection issues. There has been no US ambassador to France since last summer – so this visit could provide an opening for an overdue announcement.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, Hollande will become the first French president to visit California since François Mitterrand's foray in 1984 – when he met a young computer entrepreneur named Steve Jobs. Hollande plans to visit a "US French Tech Hub" and meet with several US Internet titans. His aim: to promote France as a country open to innovation and new ideas.

That may prove a tall order at a time when Yahoo has just relocated its European base to Ireland from France, in search of a friendlier fiscal environment. Obama will likely be keen to hear what Hollande has to say to Google on tax issues as well.

For the White House, there is the added awkwardness of the French president's abrupt return to bachelorhood after his recent split with longtime partner Valerie Trierweiler. The New York Times reports it has sent State Dinner planners into a frenzy of protocol pirouettes, ripping up invitations initially addressed to the presidential couple and rethinking seating arrangements at Obama's table.

Every journalist in Washington is dying to ask Hollande the question that dare not speak its name – namely, about his alleged new fling.

Hollande the Socialist raises the hackles of many Americans. They regard him as a tax-raising, high-spending, rich-bashing, philandering, borderline Communist – never mind how far from the truth that may be, especially in light of Hollande's newfound embrace of economic and social policies more often associated with the political right.

Nor has Hollande been invited to deliver an address to the joint chambers of Congress – an honour that often goes hand-in-hand with State visits. It is easy to read too much into this, interpreting it as a deliberate snub – which it is not. Rather, the political vibes in the Republican-dominated House may have not been right at the present time.

Stepping up to the plate

It's also tempting to dismiss the visit as a diplomatic courtesy gesture. State visits are the stuff of dreams for foreign leaders – Obama last extended the privilege nearly two years ago, for the South Korean president.

But there may be more symbiosis than meets the eye. For all its vicissitudes, the Franco-American relationship has stood the test of time.

At a moment when the British are as war-weary as the Americans – Obama said he was elected to end wars, not start them – the French have done the yeoman's work in the counter-terrorism war in Africa. They intervened in Mali to end an occupation of that country's north by al Qaeda-linked jihadists and, more recently, stepping in to strike a pre-emptive blow against an incipient genocide threat in the Central African Republic.

While Germany has made noises that it seeks to play a more active role in global foreign policy after decades of post-war self-effacement, such a shift will take time and political maneuvering.

France has been willing to step up to the plate – to use an American baseball metaphor – in places where the Americans have lacked the will or the way. In the Middle East, Paris's tough line on Syria and Iran has demonstrated a sharp turn in foreign policy since the days when Americans castigated France for opposing the war in Iraq.

On the diplomatic front, France has become Obama's European partner of first resort when it comes to projecting military muscle in places the Americans have no intention of ever putting boots on the ground.

But it's a safe bet we won't be seeing too many gushing headlines about “Hollande the American” in the US media over the next few days, as was the case with his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.


Date created : 2014-02-10


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