French President Francois Hollande is as popular in official circles in Washington as he is unpopular with the citizens of the country that elected him. Story of a unique alliance.
PARIS — Barack Obama is going all out. He is receiving François Hollande for a state visit, a privilege he has granted to only six heads of state since arriving at the White House. But such an honor raises the stakes on Hollande's three-day visit to the United States.
The two met on Feb. 10 at the Monticello estate, the historical home of President Thomas Jefferson, one of the first ambassadors in Paris. An abundance of luxury and good food is also planned for the evening of Feb. 11 for the dinner at the White House, where tuxedos are of course required.
Like his predecessor, Obama has never been especially fond of such meetings. He does not agree to them as easily as did Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Indeed, this is his first in nearly two years, with the last state visitor being British Prime Minister David Cameron in March 2012.
In addition to depriving him from dining with his wife and daughters, these meetings are inconveniently formal and expensive — old-fashioned customs of state that do not necessarily correspond to the exigencies of 21st century diplomacy.
With this state visit, Obama is bestowing an honor reserved for a strategic ally more than for a friend. And indeed, this visit is not about friendship. Both men barely know each other. Apart from the G20 and the G8, they've had no other occasions to meet.
Feigning a close personal relationship is the part of the character of neither François Hollande’s nor Barack Obama, with the protocol made even more complicated after the French president's recent separation from his companion Valerie Trierweiler.
The choreography is very far from the bucolic picnic to which George W. Bush had invited Nicolas Sarkozy during the summer of 2007, in his family residence in Maine. Very far also from the — largely artificial — intimacy with which Sarkozy acted toward Obama.
Hollande also falls much deeper than his predecessor within the tradition of French heads of state. Like François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, he bears this Gaullist attitude, made of respect and sovereignty. “Sarko the American” wanted to stand side-by-side with President Obama; Hollande prefers facing him. He affirmed his independence as soon as he took office by announcing the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan in May 2012.
None of this is likely to displease Barack Obama. Despite his broad smile, the man never particularly appreciated Nicolas Sarkozy’s familiarity. The form should not overshadow the substance: In fact, relations between the two countries have improved greatly in the last 10 years.
Leading from behind
As strange as it may seem, approval of Hollande has increased in the U.S., as much as it has plummeted in France. The determination he displayed while handling the intervention in Mali and in the Central African Republic got high marks in Washington, particularly among Republicans. Long maligned for its opposition to the war in Iraq, France has now reclaimed its place among its friends, countries that dare to risk the lives of their soldiers to block Islamist radicalism.
France has shown a willingness to send its troops even ahead of any U.S. intervention, which suits the White House perfectly: It is even at the heart of its strategy, dubbed by diplomats as “leading from behind.”
Of course, the two presidents have had a few hitches these last few months. Obama’s decision to consult Congress before an intervention in Syria, while French pilots were ready to take off, humiliated the Elysée. “Everything was ready for the day that we’d chosen,” François Hollande told Time magazine last week.
A faux-pas more than an act of contempt, Obama offended the only European head of state that supported him unconditionally on the Syrian issue. It is actually not impossible that the state visit was called as a way to make up for this diplomatic incident.
Still, the two presidents have many common interests. Obama is not unhappy to have a European leader who dares to defy German-led economic policy of austerity. The French model, of course, is not something the Americans seek — but Paris still has enough political influence in Europe to encourage policies to stimulate economic growth, which can boost American exports.
François Hollande is now proud to call himself a "social-democrat," and has never talked so much about economic competitiveness as he has in recent weeks.
But let’s be clear: The meeting between the two presidents is fundamentally about diplomacy rather than economics. The Syrian case is far from being closed, with the second round of the Geneva peace talks between the Damascus regime and the opposition. On this dossier, Paris remains Washington’s best ally. British Prime Minister David Cameron is completely paralyzed by his Parliament. As for Angela Merkel, she is perpetuating the German tradition of not intervening in military conflicts.
The number of great powers concerned with guaranteeing security in the world has decreased at an alarming pace. And so this is why, today more than ever, the White House needs France.