Can the Obama administration save François Hollande?

2ckb1152No one could miss the undertones of yesterday’s op-ed, co-written by US president Barack Obama and French president François Hollande, in The Washington Post and Le Monde:France Flag Icon

A decade ago, few would have imagined our two countries working so closely together in so many ways. But in recent years our alliance has transformed. Since France’s return to NATO’s military command four years ago and consistent with our continuing commitment to strengthen the NATO- European Union partnership, we have expanded our cooperation across the board. We are sovereign and independent nations that make our decisions based on our respective national interests. Yet we have been able to take our alliance to a new level because our interests and values are so closely aligned.

It was one of the biggest, wettest, sloppiest kisses that the Obama administration has given a foreign leader — and it’s not something that this administration does often.  It’s part of the red-carpet treatment that Obama is rolling out for Hollande, who visited Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in Virginia on Monday, and will be the host of a state dinner tonight at the White House.

It’s clearly an opportunity for the newly single Hollande to move on after a dismal January, when sensational headlines over his trysts with a French actress overshadowed his his attempts to introduce a new economic reform package.  It became a nearly monthlong saga that sent Hollande’s partner, Valerie Trierweiler, to a Paris hospital for over a week, and that ended with their breakup.

Time magazine, which a wide-ranging interview, asks this week on its cover whether Hollande can fix France.  It’s worth asking whether, first, the White House is trying to help fix Hollande.  Polls routinely show Hollande with an approval rating in the low 20s (or even high teens), making him the least popular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, not even two years into his five-year term.

The White House treatment, including Monday’s joint editorial, undoubtedly hopes to share of Obama’s star power with the widely derided president.  Obama needs Hollande’s help to finalize the US-EU free trade pact, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, even though it could harm French farmers and wine producers by opening the European Union to cheaper US exports.  Obama will also need Hollande’s help to win a long-term nuclear energy deal with Iran while the temporary six-month deal remains in effect.

It’s true that France has been, surprisingly, almost as reliable a partner on US foreign policy as the United Kingdom in recent years.  Hollande has deepened France’s 21st century internationalism, of course, most notably through his decision to mount a largely successful intervention to keep northern Mali from falling to foreign Islamic jihadists, thereby giving Bamako the space to hold new elections and build a stronger national government.  French peacemakers in the Central African Republic may have also helped limit violence between Christians and Muslims in December and January and smoothed the way for Michel Djotodia’s resignation.  Hollande was willing to back a US military attack on Syrian president  Bashar al-Assad last August when the United Kingdom and the US Congress were not.


But credit for the hard work of repairing US-French relations, insofar as it relates to the newly muscular tone of French foreign policy, more appropriately rests with former president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose administration marked the true pivot on foreign policy.  

Though former French president Jacques Chirac promptly launched controversial nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific Ocean in his first year in office in 1995, eight years later, he led the campaign against the planned US invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Sarkozy, Chirac’s opposite in policymaking, temperament and just about every other  regard, came to power in 2007 enthusiastic promising to drag France into a new era of reform.  Though the domestic reform results of his presidency didn’t quite match the rhetoric of his promises, Sarkozy transformed French foreign policy.  His foreign minister between 2007 and 2010 was Bernard Kouchner, formerly a member of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), who lent a muscular humanitarian edge to Sarkozy’s foreign policy from the outset.  Sarkozy sent 1,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2008, helping to repair the breach with the United States over Iraq, and he caused France to rejoin NATO’s command structure 42 years after it withdrew.  In 2011, he led the NATO effort to assist rebels in Libya trying to oust longtime president Muammar Gaddafi.

But the Obama administration might also have an interest in boosting Europe’s most prominent center-left leader.  If so, one wonders why the Obama administration didn’t taken a keener interest before Hollande’s popularity plummeted.  Center-right leaders dominate the European economic policy discussion — including UK prime minister David Cameron, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and, German chancellor Angela Merkel.  Hollande, however, was supposed to be the European leader making the case for an alternative pro-growth approach to the ‘austerity’ approach of trimming budgets and raising taxes.  It’s the approach that the Obama administration took in early 2009 when it came to power amid the worst US financial crisis in nearly a century — and it’s an approach that seems to have left the United States growing at a faster rate than the European Union.

So far, however, Hollande has triumphed only in bringing Franco-German cooperation to perhaps a postwar nadir, wasting his electoral mandate on an unpopular plan to tax the highest incomes at 75% rate, and pushing forward otherwise with a budget-cutting agenda to reduce French debt — leaving neither his leftist supporters nor his conservative opponents happy.  All while the problems of his relationship continue to overshadow his policy agenda, despite running a campaign against Sarkozy that pledged Hollande would be ‘Mr. Normal,’ immune to the ‘bling-bling’ label that affixed itself to the Sarkozy presidency.

This week’s state visit gives Hollande a moment to close the chapter of the most recent disasters in his presidency, but he’ll return to France later this week facing the same dismal fundamentals as ever: a 16-year-high unemployment rate of 11%, nearly zero GDP growth and massive disapproval ratings.

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