You never really expect state visits to produce concrete results, and this week’s trip to the U.S. by French President François Hollande was no exception. They are inevitably precooked, prepackaged and — absent a gaffe by one or the other of the parties — virtually wrapped up before the illustrious visitor touches foot in the host country. This one was long on meticulous, often windy protocol, with all the expected allusions to “America’s oldest ally… friendship stretching back more than two centuries… model for international cooperation,” yada yada. Glasses are raised, toasts proposed, ball gowns worn and a good vacuous time had by all.
Indeed, some French commentators lowered expectations at the outset by saying that the U.S. invitation was merely a consolation prize for Hollande. Obama had jilted him last August when Hollande had French air force jets all revved up on the runway to bomb the Syrian regime for its chemical weapon attacks. Obama abruptly backed down from his bellicose stance, deciding to seek authorization from Congress and leaving an embarrassed — and furious — Hollande dangling, spectacularly unable to execute a planned military strike without a green light from Washington. Then at the September G-20 summit in Saint Petersburg, Obama snubbed Hollande in favor of negotiating directly with Vladimir Putin over Syria. An invitation to a formal dinner at the White House was just the thing to smooth those ruffled feathers. And given Hollande’s disastrous unpopularity at home, some basking in warm American hospitality while rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous was more than welcome at the Elysée Palace.
The visit’s start was inauspicious enough to bear out the notion that this would be a purely pro forma affair. Some contrasted Hollande’s low-key arrival at Andrews Air Force Base with the grand welcome Dwight Eisenhower gave Charles de Gaulle in April 1960. Then, Ike was out on the tarmac as soon as the French plane touched down. He accompanied de Gaulle on a review of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine troops impeccably lined up, afterward ceremoniously presenting him with a big gold key to the city of Washington. This time, Hollande was greeted only by a relatively low-grade White House staff member, Natalie Jones, chief of protocol. Rather than hundreds of smartly turned-out troops, a handful of Marines struggled to hold down the red carpet in a wind that threatened to blow it off the field. Obama didn’t show up until 40 minutes later, his French guest having been left to cool his heels in a VIP room. Official hellos don’t come much smaller.
Back in France, Hollande’s arrival suffered the indignity of being upstaged on French TV by his archrival, former President Nicolas Sarkozy. With impeccable timing, Sarko showed up at a political rally for the conservative candidate for mayor of Paris, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, just as Hollande’s plane touched down. Cable news channels were in a tizzy: they had been touting the official visit to Washington for days, but here was Sarkozy — widely expected to repeat a run against Hollande in 2017 — attending his first overtly political event since Hollande beat him in May 2012. With Sarkozy being hailed by a frenzied crowd of some 2,000 supporters with chants of “Nicolas, president!” they shifted nervously back and forth between the two events until they gave up and showed them side-by-side on split screens — a solemn, shivering Hollande striding down the red carpet in the frigid wind as a grinning, triumphant Sarkozy soaked up the plaudits.
But French attention snapped back to the visit when Hollande boarded Air Force One for the brief trip to Monticello. Air Force One! And a French president was actually going to fly in it! This, French media repeated over and over, was a Very Big Deal. (They did not dwell on the fact that the plane in question apparently was not the big 747, but the smaller Air Force Two, a modified Boeing 757 usually reserved for the vice president.) This was an honor, it was repeatedly pointed out, that had only been accorded to one other chief of state, the anglais rival David Cameron. Chalk up one for la France.
The White House couldn’t have chosen a better way to pander to preening French pride than giving Hollande an hour to look over Monticello. However short the visit, this was seen by the French as particularly flattering. Just think: the maison of Thomas Jefferson himself, who had been the American ambassador to Paris from 1785 to 1789, who spoke French, who loved French culture, books, and wine — a “fervent Francophile” as Obama put it without fear of belaboring a cliché. Others would follow. Like Hollande’s “We were friends at the time of Jefferson and Lafayette, we are friends forever!”
As the Barack and François show went on, the lanky American president looming over his chubby, pint-sized guest, the two kept up the façade of friendly banter. There was the glacial Washington weather to joke about. The inevitable humorous observations about life in America from Alexis de Tocqueville. Obama’s wobbly “liberté, egalité, and fraternité.” Hollande’s comical “Meester President.” And then the lavish closing White House dinner with Hollande’s cute quip, “You love the French, but you don’t always say so because you are shy.” The only potentially false note came when the chanteuse Mary J. Blige provocatively sang the weepy torch song Ne Me Quitte Pas, a pointed reference to the guest’s recent titillating break-up with the First Concubine, Valéry Trierweiler. But he refused to be drawn, retorting with the one-liner, “France and America will never part.” All in all, the trip was a heart-warming comedy number that they lapped up back home, even if most French still can’t abide Hollande himself — his poll numbers recently slipped below 20.
But some serious observers did note that such Franco-American backslapping would have been unthinkable until recently. It wasn’t all that long ago that the French were derided as cheese-eating surrender monkeys when Jacques Chirac refused to follow George Bush into Iraq. They served freedom fries on Capitol Hill. Now the American president was signing a joint op-ed article with Hollande in both the Washington Post and Le Monde recalling that “For more than two centuries, our two peoples have stood together for our mutual freedom… our enduring alliance is being made new again.” What, exactly, was going on?
“This spectacular rapprochement is a turnaround that few diplomats could have anticipated,” opined Le Figaro. “Now, despite the jokes about François Hollande’s love life, the deficiencies of the French economic model, and the scandal of NSA spying, France and the U.S. are proclaiming a strategic and military closeness unprecedented since the two world wars.” Most analysts here agree that it is Washington that has changed its tune. Some go so far as to dream that France is replacing Britain as America’s best friend in Europe — an improbable “special relationship.”
The reasons are many: France has rejoined NATO’s integrated military command. Britain’s David Cameron appears preoccupied by internal politics, especially the upcoming election, Scottish threats of independence, and popular clamor to leave the European Union. The U.S., pivoting toward Asia while pulling out of the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires, shying away from intervening in the Syrian conflict, is widely perceived as losing interest in the Middle East. As the Economist puts it, “In many ways it suits America to have a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council talking tough in the region.” (During the first Geneva negotiations on Iran, it was French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, not John Kerry, who pushed aggressively for tougher guarantees on Teheran’s nuclear program.) In Africa’s volatile Sahel region, a jihadists’ takeover target, it is Hollande who has sent troops to stop an incursion by al Qaeda-linked Islamists in Mali, and into the Central African Republic to try to deal with genocidal warfare. By default, France has become America’s most hawkish European ally.
From there it’s only a short step to the growing perception here that the U.S., with Obama “leading from behind,” is outsourcing its leadership in these areas to France. Pierre Haski, founder of a successful French web magazine and a seasoned international correspondent, believes that “There is plenty of common ground between a superpower that has lost a lot of clout with the rise of other powers, and a medium-sized European nation that is still looking for its place in the globalized world.” Is this, as Rick told Captain Renault as they left the Casablanca air field with Ingrid Bergman winging her way to freedom in America, the beginning of a beautiful friendship?