[original story April 23, 2012] The French presidential elections give America plenty to chew on. It’s clear that the French don’t like their current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who came in second to French Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in the first round of presidential voting this past weekend. An incumbent has never lost in the first round. Now, he and Hollande will face off on May 6, in a runoff vote Hollande is expected to win.
The French might not like Sarkozy, but he likes America. Since he became France’s president in 2007, he has backed the U.S. on Iran, Israel, NATO and Russia, among other things.
America likes Sarkozy, too. U.S. President Barack Obama, in fact, proclaimed that France was America’s greatest ally during a visit by Sarkozy last year to the White House, as the conservative UK paper the Daily Mail sniffed. “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people” Obama said at the time. The Daily Mail remembered how Obama snubbed Gordon Brown when he visited the U.S. (Obama was caught up in the U.S. financial crisis at the time; he and Brown’s successor, David Cameron, co-authored an article in the Washington Post in March titled: “An alliance the world can count on.”)
Some have observed that U.S.-French ties will not be as close under a Hollande administration. But pessimism might be premature. For one thing, French voters were likely commenting on Sarkozy’s handling of the French economy, not some perceived kowtowing to U.S. interests. As Phillippe Coste said Thursday in the left-leaning weekly L’Express, as noted by CNN, “Hollande told the New York Times that before attending L’Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the alma mater of our elite public service, he had traveled to the United States and written a report on the American fast food industry that foresaw the triumph of McDonald’s in France a decade later. The candidate even admitted a personal weakness for hamburgers — a strategic cliché America is welcome to take as a token of transatlantic loyalty.”
One lucky fellow
Hollande, incidentally, probably wouldn’t have been on the ballot if not for the scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was head of the International Monetary Fund and expected to win the Socialist primary before his encounter with a New York hotel maid. Strauss-Kahn was accused of rape (the charges were later dropped) and bowed out of the presidential race.
Back to political relationships. The U.S. and France have a long history — France’s support in the American Revolution was critical to the U.S. winning independence. As one might expect, every 235-year-old relationship goes through its ups and downs. Colin Powell observed in 2004 that the U.S. and France, “in therapy for the last 60 years,” could form closer ties, noted Coste. Remember that campaign to boycott French fries, after Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, declined to support the Iraq War?
As Coste noted, the relationship is complex:
“The official French explanation (of the U.S.-French relationship) is that we both have strong and ‘radiating’ cultures. The reality is that history has not made us equal. And it is sometimes painful. It was made worse, and personal, by World War II, when Presidents Roosevelt and Truman didn’t embrace Charles De Gaulle, the only remnant of dignity of a battered country and the only symbolic redemption of a past that included a shaming defeat, a cruel occupation and the moral abyss of collaboration by Vichy and French police.”
What would Hollande do, actually?
There is concern among conservative leaders in Europe, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, over the economic positions taken by Hollande, a left-wing politician who has said, for one thing, that he wants to raise taxes on the rich (75 percent on French millionaires to be precise). He also stresses growth instead of austerity, at odds with Germany’s plan to keep the European economy from debt-soaked collapse. Hollande wants to pull troops out of Afghanistan this year, two years sooner than the NATO plan. French forces have been fighting since 2001 alongside American troops in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Four French soldiers were killed in January in an attack by an Afghan serviceman.
All of those things do matter to the U.S. Europe is our largest trading partner. Incidentally, the far right-wing candidate, Marine Le Pen, had a surprisingly strong showing in the elections Sunday in France, coming in third place with 18 percent of the vote. Gregory Raymond, reporting Sunday in the Huffington Post, said that Le Pen’s “anti-liberal” proposals added a new dimension to the presidential race:
“The extreme right-wing party called for ‘another vision of man, another vision of the economy,’ and for putting ‘French interests first, above the interests of the financial markets, and above the interests of other nations, including Europe.’ “
An “acute silence” in Washington
Would Hollande significantly change the U.S.-French relationship? “Suspense is quietly acute in Washington,” observed Corine Lesnes, a writer for the French newspaper Le Monde, in an article this month published by the European Institute. This is particularly the case, she said, “after five years of an exceptionally high comfort level with Paris” during Sarkozy’s tenure.
Hollande has not visited the U.S. once during the current presidential campaign, as opposed to Sarkozy’s “hot and heavy courtship” of the U.S. when he was a candidate, Lesnes said. At home in France, Hollande presents a down-to-earth image. He doesn’t have a former international supermodel holding demurely onto his arm, as does the current leader. Hollande, who himself has an “elegant” (as the French news agency AFP puts it) “significant other,” has portrayed himself as a “normal” French person. That “return to normal” probably doesn’t bode so well for Washington. Lesnes noted that friends of Hollande say he doesn’t share Sarkozy’s fascination with all things American.
Taking nothing for granted
If nothing else, the U.S. won’t be able to take its ties with France for granted if Hollande wins the presidency. The Obama administration will probably have to put more focus — meaning personnel and time — in dealing with the new dynamics.
Whether, as the Canadian publication the Globe and Mail wondered, Hollande is a dull apparatchik, a tool of the Labour movement, a consensus builder or a “not-entirely-successful dieter and exerciser,” the U.S. will be watching closely.