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Hollande Signals Return of France as Complicated Ally for West

May 06, 2012

Francois Hollande, France's Socialist Party newly elected president waves as he arrives on stage at the Place de la Bastille in Paris. Photographer: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

Francois Hollande, France's Socialist Party newly elected president waves as he arrives on stage at the Place de la Bastille in Paris. Photographer: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

Following a president once nicknamed “Sarko the American,” Francois Hollande is set to resume the traditional role of French leaders: annoying their allies.

Hollande, who made Nicolas Sarkozy a one-term president yesterday, has promised to speed France’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and questioned the return to NATO’s command structure engineered by Sarkozy. He is picking fights with Germany’s Angela Merkel over debt-crisis politics.

“He’ll be a classic French president: ally of the U.S. but not emotionally involved like Sarkozy, whose attitude toward the U.S. was like a hiccup in French foreign-policy history,” said Francois Heisbourg, chairman of London-based Institute for Strategic Studies. “More classic, therefore, means more complicated.”

The president-elect’s agenda will be dominated by foreign policy in his first days in office. He plans a visit to Merkel following his inauguration next week. Immediately after that, he steps onto the world stage at a Group of Eight summit at Camp David, near Washington, and a NATO summit in Chicago.

France’s seventh president since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, Hollande has said he’d order the withdrawal from Afghanistan of all combat troops by the end of 2012, one year ahead of Sarkozy’s schedule and two years before the U.S. He warned in March that he was also “reticent” about a U.S.- advocated European missile-defense shield. The views may not be set in stone.

Time for Compromises

“As an opposition candidate to Sarkozy he had to take these stances,” Hubert Vedrine, a former Socialist foreign minister, said in an interview. “His foreign-policy positions have responded to domestic demands. Now begins the time for discussions and compromises.”

Hollande the candidate sought to strike a balance that sometimes eluded his predecessors in managing trans-Atlantic relations that date to Louis XVI’s support for the colonists against the British Empire. They reached a low point when Jacques Chirac opposed the invasion of Iraq -- introducing “freedom fries” into the American lexicon -- and warmed under Sarkozy, who called then-candidate Barack Obama his ‘‘buddy’’ in 2008.

“We will try to avoid being an element of trouble” at the Chicago meeting, Hollande told a group of reporters in February. “Even if we may have diverging analyses on NATO and Afghanistan, we are fully conscious that we are allies and thus partners,” he said at an April 25 press conference.

Hollande supported the 2001 decision to join the U.S. in Afghanistan. He voted against Sarkozy’s decision to add troops in 2008, saying the French mission there was “over.” While he promised to withdraw the remaining 3,600 soldiers still involved in the NATO mission there, he said in March he would “not impose our rhythm on others.”

Picking Parliament

The political stakes in Chicago remain high for Hollande. “Don’t forget he has a major legislative election in June and he must win an absolute majority,” Heisbourg said. The two- round vote for parliament is set for June 10 and June 17.

While Hollande promised he wouldn’t overturn Sarkozy’s 2009 decision to rejoin the NATO command structure -- which Charles de Gaulle exited -- he questioned its “tangible benefits” and said in the March speech, “We preserve our independence.”

Hollande’s personal style also contrasts with his predecessor, who is known for his volatile temperament. “Just being in a room with Sarkozy is enough to make anyone’s stress levels increase,” according to a Dec. 14, 2007, U.S. cable published by Wikileaks.

Hollande’s Career

Hollande, nicknamed after a pudding, has spent his career behind the scenes negotiating compromises. He has never held a government post. Hollande, 57, has represented the central town of Correze for 24 years in parliament and was the Socialist Party chief for 11 years until 2008.

As party leader, he met Socialist counterparts around the world. He met one head of state during his campaign, Poland’s Bronislaw Komorowski, in March. In an October visit to Madrid he met with Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

At the same time, he has fashioned a persona that may be familiar to the U.S. leader. “No drama, no surprise: the Obama recipe,” Justin Vaisse, an analyst at Washington-based Brookings Institution wrote on April 13.

Relations with Germany may be the biggest hurdle in Hollande’s start. Merkel, the leader of France’s biggest trading partner, officially supported Sarkozy in the campaign and opposed Hollande’s rejectionist view toward tighter European budget-deficit rules. Talks will be ’’firm and friendly,’’ he said on April 25.

The multiple meetings with Obama in his U.S. visit may also enable Hollande to reveal positions on Iran, Syria and consequences of the Arab spring. The new president’s repeated in his campaign he wouldn’t depart from Sarkozy’s policies.

‘Unknown Quantity’

“He is a totally unknown quantity,” said Ezra Suleiman, a political-science professor at Princeton University.

Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister and a possible candidate for the foreign ministry post said in a Bloomberg Television interview April 20 that Hollande was “strongly against the possession by Iran of nuclear arms and there is the need to apply sanctions, possibly much harder, but at the same time keep open the channels -- so there would be no shift.”

One last hurdle for Hollande may be his marital status. He and his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, a journalist for Paris Match magazine, are not married. That’s unprecedented for France’s presidency. When Sarkozy wanted to bring girlfriend Carla Bruni to India and to meet Queen Elizabeth II in 2008, he had to marry her to avoid breaches of protocol.

To contact the reporter on this story: Helene Fouquet in Paris at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at

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