PARIS – When François Hollande, fresh from his election as France’s next president, was asked by a journalist which language he would use when he meets US President Barack Obama for the first time, his answer was revealing. “I speak English more fluently than the former president,” the Socialist leader insisted, referring to the outgoing Nicolas Sarkozy. “But a French president must speak French!”
In proclaiming his mastery of the lingua franca of global affairs, Hollande was asserting himself as a modern statesman, while also suggesting that France will remain as influential as possible on the international scene. Indeed, he was proclaiming his commitment to internationalism and multilateralism. In order to remain a country that punches above its weight diplomatically, it is in France’s interest to operate through international organizations rather than to rely on bilateral relationships.
Hollande is also aware that, for historical and cultural reasons, France’s international role must be different from that of other countries. In his book Changer de destin (Changing Destiny), published in February, he affirms that France’s message will continue to be a universal one – a stance reminiscent of the birth in 1789 of the French Republic, which, like the United States, was originally conceived as the triumph of liberty and democracy.
Unlike in France, however, the word “socialist” is an epithet for most Americans. But this could be a source of strength for Hollande, who, as a new leader with no foreign-policy experience, will have to prove his ability through action. And here, Obama, in particular, will soon understand that Hollande has no intention of bringing sweeping change. On the contrary, his intention will be to appear as a reliable and unsurprising partner.
Hollande is unlikely to be less friendly with America than was Sarkozy, regarded by many as France’s most pro-US president. Hollande supported the military intervention in Libya in 2011, and has joined the condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One of his close political allies recently declared that should the United Nations Security Council approve military intervention in Syria, France “could envision” participating in that effort.
Hollande also supports a tough line on Iran and, regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his book indicates that he subscribes to the “Clinton parameters” – two states with secure borders and a status for Jerusalem that is acceptable to both sides. With regard to relations between France and the Arab world, one can be certain that Hollande would agree with the pro-engagement thrust of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech.
Last but not least, Hollande is not likely to call into question Sarkozy’s decision in 2009 to reintegrate France into NATO’s military command. That decision remains controversial in France, including among Socialists, but Hollande is well aware of the weaknesses of a European defense policy that simply cannot compete with NATO.
Nevertheless, at the NATO Summit in Chicago at the end of May, Hollande will confirm his pledge to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, two years ahead of the NATO timetable (though he recognizes the need to negotiate the practical details). This will be an important test of Hollande’s ability to deal effectively with allies.
The second test of his ability to negotiate with other leaders will be within Europe. One of the highest-flying proposals of his electoral platform was a call for renegotiation of the European Union’s new “fiscal pact,” endorsed by all member states with the exception of the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic. Inspired by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, approval of the pact was a precondition for Germany’s participation in the financial rescue plan for Greece and the other distressed eurozone countries.
Hollande’s proposal was initially regarded as lèse-majesté against Germany. Now all European leaders – from Mario Monti in Italy to Mariano Rajoy in Spain and Elio Di Rupo in Belgium – agree on the need to revive the European economy. So do Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, and, indeed, Merkel herself.
Merkel and Hollande will discuss the main question – how to spur economic growth without increasing public debt – on May 15 in Berlin. While Merkel opposes Hollande’s proposal to create Eurobonds with a view to financing industrial projects, they cannot afford to waste time in reassuring jittery markets with a message of cohesion. Merkel has already welcomed Hollande’s ideas for a growth plan for Europe. Hollande, too, will have to make concessions.
For the French, as for all Europeans, the EU is not a foreign entity, and its decisions are an integral part of domestic policies. In this regard, Hollande has a chance to succeed on the international scene as a truly pro-European leader. Only a stronger Europe will ensure fair trade with emerging countries, especially China. Only a stronger Europe will at last implement the principle of reciprocity in order to protect European businesses and prevent them from relocating, which has been the main cause of unemployment.
In a recent interview, Hollande declared that, “France is not just any European country, and its president is not just any world leader.” The French are happy to hear that. But that affirmation also represents Hollande’s main challenge: ensuring that this remains true in the context of twenty-first-century globalization.