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.