'Freedom fries' forgotten, Hollande visits Obama amid warming ties

The first full state visit to Washington by a French president in 20 years comes amid tight Franco-American relations, both diplomatically and militarily.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
French President François Hollande (l.) answers a question with President Obama during a photo opportunity at the Group of 8 Summit at Camp David, Md., in May 2012. France's president arrives in the US today for a state visit.

As French President François Hollande begins his state visit with American counterpart Barack Obama today, the two leaders will put on display a bilateral relationship that has deepened significantly in the past five years.

If Franco-American relations are often characterized as rocky – and defined in the public mind more by their clashes, particularly in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – today it’s much harder to find points of divergence. In fact, on foreign policy, France has become one of America’s most dependable partners in Europe, stepping into space that Britain once occupied exclusively.

“The change is spectacular in 10 years,” says Frederic Bozo, an international relations expert in France who published a new book on Franco-American relations since France opposed invading Iraq, leading to French bashing and new terminology like “freedom fries."

“France has become the US’s best ally in Europe, at least as seen through the prism of crisis management and military cooperation,” Dr. Bozo says.

Though official visits are common on both sides of the Atlantic, the Hollande trip is the first full state visit by a French leader to the United States in nearly 20 years. Ahead of it, the two leaders penned an op-ed in the Washington Post, underscoring the transformation that’s taken place in Franco-American affairs.  

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,” Presidents Obama and Hollande write. “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.” 

The French policy of independence from "anglo influence," since the founding of the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle, has given the French a reputation for being difficult and disloyal, says Bozo. That is misunderstood, though. “It is a difficult ally because it wants to be a good ally,” he says. “Being an ally for France is not being a systematic follower of the US.”

Even so, despite the damage Iraq did to the bilateral relationship, it has been the major exception in the past several decades. “The whole parentheses on Iraq was precisely just that,” says Arun Kapil from the Catholic University of Paris. “When it comes to the threat of ‘international terrorism’ they are on same page.”

For Laurence Nardon, a senior research fellow and head of the United States Program at the French institute of International Relations, the two countries are far more similar than commonly understood. “It’s a relationship mainly that is full of misperceptions all the time,” she says. But “we are very much akin in terms of political philosophy. We are much closer in terms of our project for the world, and how we see ourselves as a nation, than perhaps the US and the UK.”

The Franco-American relationship has become more important to both, to some extent, because of exterior factors. While the US, France, and Britain all face military defense cuts, it is Britain that is perhaps showing the most “war fatigue,” seen most recently when it declined to strike Syria, after the French, and initially the US, were ready to fight. While charges of US espionage from leaked documents by Edward Snowden have hurt US diplomatic relations globally, particularly in Europe, it did the most damage to the German-American relationship, says Bozo.

But French military action has garnered praise from the US, both for its intervention in Libya with Britain in 2011, and this year in Mali and the Central African Republic. It’s also played a major role in negotiations with Iran on its nuclear power generation and civil strife in Syria.

The Franco-American relationship spans beyond foreign policy. In their op-ed, Hollande and Obama speak of cooperation in the ongoing negotiations for a US-European Union trade deal, and their leadership in combating climate change. Hollande will visit Silicon Valley Wednesday, in which he will face the joint task of raising issues with Google and other tech giants over tax disputes in France. And at the same time, he will try to convince US enterprise that France is a good place to do business, particularly with new business-friendly policies that Hollande unveiled last month amid rock bottom approval ratings.

It’s in the realm of foreign policy, however, where both have the most to gain. For Obama, a dependable ally in France underscores that the US has partners in Europe, and a partner willing to act on its own, while it focuses attention on Asia. For Hollande, the state visit could raise some controversy, says Bozo.

“On the one hand, he is exposing himself to those who criticize his foreign policy as too Atlanticist and too pro-American and to those who oppose his pro-business turn,” he says. But it also gives him the chance to be seen as the quintessential world leader, with red-carpet treatment in Washington. “It comes at a time when he faces very big difficulties at home.”

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