Bienvenue Monsieur le Président!: A State Visit and the State of Franco-American Relations Considered
February 10, 2014
The countries America honors and the leaders we invite for a state visit sends a powerful message about the foreign policy agenda of a president. Some presidents view state visits as an opportunity to reward important and long-standing partners; others see it as an opportunity to strengthen and/or to make new friends. For President Obama, it has certainly been the latter. Of the four state visits that have been held, the countries recognized were: India (2009), Mexico (2010), China (2011), and South Korea (2011). Brazil would have been a fifth in 2013, however the Brazilian President postponed the visit due to the NSA revelations. President George W. Bush held six state visits during his eight year tenure for the presidents of Mexico, Poland, the Philippines, Kenya, and Ghana in addition to hosting Queen Elizabeth.
By inviting French President François Hollande for a state visit – the first European head of state to be given that honor by the Obama administration - the President may be sending a signal to an old ally on an old continent that there may be something to treating old friends as well as being too eager to make new ones.
On average, the United States has thrown une grande fête for a French President every 8 to 10 years, give or take. Mr. Hollande is the sixth president of the Fifth Republic that has received the honor of a U.S. state visit: President De Gaulle (1960), President Pompidou (1970), President Giscard (1976), President Mitterrand (1984) and President Chirac (1996). Interestingly, the French have only returned the favor twice: for President Kennedy in 1961 (who famously accompanied his wife to Paris) and Ronald Reagan in 1982.
Why the 18 year hiatus for our French friends? Ten years ago, Americans were munching on “freedom fries” as U.S.-French relations had plunged to new depths prior to the Iraq War. It is a testament to the strength of our economic, cultural, and historic ties, as well as excellent diplomats and people-to-people relationships, that this partnership was restored and rebuilt so quickly.
The last time these two leaders met in Washington was in May 2012, literally during Mr. Hollande’s first week in office when a hastily-called bilateral meeting in the Oval Office was slipped in prior to the G8 Camp David Summit and NATO Summit in Chicago. At the time, both summits and meetings were overshadowed by the deepening Eurozone crisis which was beginning to worry President Obama’s re-election campaign.
A year and a half later, the timing for this second Washington visit makes sense. Presidents Obama and Hollande have several areas of common interest: both are from the same international, center-left political family and both are focusing on creating jobs and economic opportunity in their respective countries. Both are facing declining popularity, and in Mr. Hollande’s case, the lowest favorability rating of any French President. 11% unemployment, 0.4% economic growth in the last quarter, and a variety of government and personal scandals tend to be a damper on one’s popularity.
Yet there are striking differences between the two leaders. While Mr. Obama is beginning to see the end of his tenure and thinking more and more about his presidential and historical legacy, Mr. Hollande is just at the beginning of his five year tenure and it has been a rocky one thus far.
Moreover, there has been a role reversal between the U.S. and France on the question of military intervention. More than a decade ago, the United States militarily led NATO and other coalition partners in Afghanistan, and also a coalition of countries into Iraq (an intervention which Paris strongly opposed). Yet today, it is the French that are the ones that are leading military interventions in Libya, Mali and now the Central African Republic (with fairly robust American military support it should be added). It is the French that were the most strident about enforcing chemical weapons red lines in Syria (which led to Mr. Hollande’s subsequent political isolation last summer after Mr. Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron demurred) and about preventing the development of Iran’s nuclear program and demanding transparency in recent negotiations. It is the French that have established a bilateral defense treaty with the UK (the Lancaster House Treaty agreement of 2010) and are trying to encourage other European countries to financially support future European military operations. Although French combat troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2012, President Hollande’s visit should be an occasion to acknowledge extraordinary French foreign and security policy engagement, particularly in light of very challenging economic times. France is a bright light in a dimming strategic Europe.
Deepening and strengthening Franco-American cooperation across a broad set of global issues will be on the menu for this state visit: Iran negotiations, Syrian negotiations, instability in the Sahel and North Africa, UN cooperation, the Middle East peace process, next year’s 2015 climate change summit (which will be held in Paris), Russia and Ukraine, the Asia-Pacific region, the future of NATO to be shaped by an upcoming September summit in Wales, and the list goes on.
At a time when many European countries are becoming increasingly convinced that Washington is simply not interested in European issues writ large (last week’s expletive uttered by the most senior ranking American official charged with overseeing U.S.-European relations certainly strengthened this perception) and are generally confused about the future direction of American foreign and security policy, a state visit honoring a historic and very active relationship today is an opportunity to highlight for both Americans and Europeans alike why the United States must not take its closest friends for granted.
Heather A. Conley is Senior Fellow and Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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