When French President François Hollande and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain meet for the first time today in the United States ahead of the G8 and NATO summits, they likely will do what the French and Britons have done for decades: Disagree on virtually everything – except the need to keep working together.
Mr. Hollande, a socialist, and Mr. Cameron, a conservative, have shared little common ground on issues such as NATO’s military intervention in Afghanistan and measures to fix Europe’s current economic crisis. Hollande repeatedly said during his presidential campaign that the European Union needs growth-oriented measures rather than the austerity-centered approach favored by Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Yet Hollande and Cameron do share one central goal: preventing an economic collapse of Greece that would result in it leaving the eurozone, an event whose dramatic consequences could include the end of the euro, Europe’s common currency.
Fabio Liberti, a Paris-based expert on defense and European issues, says he thinks the meeting between Cameron and Hollande should go well despite their disagreements, because the French president has made his positions known and has no interest in being combative.
“He is starting his presidency with already quite a few tensions so I don’t think he wants to add more to it, if you will,” says Mr. Liberti, a research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations. “Today the French-British relationship isn’t the most urgent issue, so I don’t see him being aggressive with David Cameron.”
Cameron also has softened his tone this week amid the deepening Greek crisis, offering some praise for Hollande's initiatives and aligning himself a bit more with pro-growth camps.
"Even with the election of a Socialist president in France, he's actually said 'how am I going to stimulate the economy, I'm not going to do it through extra public spending, because actually we've got to cut back on that,'" Cameron told ITV1's television's Daybreak show. The prime minister also noted that Hollande's target for balancing the budget by 2017 outpaced that of the UK.
Is France really likely to pull out of Afghanistan early?
With Afghanistan a central issue at the NATO summit, Hollande's pledge to withdraw 3,400 remaining French troops by the end of 2012, even though the NATO deadline for ending combat operations is late 2014, is also a point of concern. Cameron is expected to ask Hollande, who has made public that he considers France’s mission in Afghanistan to be completed, to reconsider his position when they meet today.
Liberti says the problems that a French early pullout of Afghanistan could pose shouldn’t be overestimated because he says it simply won’t happen. Liberti says he believes the French military won’t have enough time to leave Afghanistan by year's end.
“François Hollande said we were committing to withdraw troops in late 2012,” Liberti says. “Basically, it’s impossible. From a logistic point of view, it’s impossible.”
Yet Liberti says Cameron and Hollande could have heated exchanges in the longer term when EU countries start discussing the budget of the organization.
Hollande was elected on an anti-austerity agenda on May 6, although he gave limited details during the campaign on how he would achieve economic growth. Cameron publicly backed former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was running for reelection, and didn’t meet with Hollande when the latter visited London earlier this year.
Hollande said he would ask European Union countries to renegotiate a fiscal compact on budgetary discipline within the eurozone to boost economic growth. Britain and Czech Republic refused to sign the compact, which was agreed to in March.
Cameron and Hollande belong to different European political traditions. Hollande, a center-left politician of France’s Socialist Party, favors stronger economic and political ties between European countries, while Cameron’s center-right Conservative Party has historically been reluctant to deepen European integration in order to preserve Britain’s independence.
Liberti says Cameron and Hollande are starkly different not only politically but as people.
“On the one hand, you have a British aristocrat and on the other hand the man who said ‘I don’t like the rich,’ ” Liberti says, referring to a statement Hollande made on a television show in 2006 that raised eyebrows in France.