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Why Obama isn't cheering for France's new socialist president

May 07, 2012|By Doyle McManus
  • French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes President Obama to a meeting in Cannes, France, in November 2011.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes President Obama to a meeting… (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty…)

You might think the Obama White House would be cheering for Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader who just won France’s presidential election. Obama's no socialist, except in the eyes of the "tea party" right; but Hollande’s economic policies -- especially his desire for more stimulus instead of Europe’s current bent for austerity -- are just what the White House has been asking for. And in an election year, you’' think any victory for a center-left party would bolster Democrats.

Instead, the Obama administration was of two minds about France's election. A few American diplomats were even rooting privately for Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative incumbent, to win. Why?

From the standpoint of U.S. foreign policy, Hollande could mean trouble. Sarkozy's domestic policies weren't anything like Obama's, but internationally he was the most pro-American leader France has seen in a long time.

Sarkozy aligned French policy with the United States on several important issues. He kept French troops in Afghanistan despite domestic pressure to withdraw. He was as tough as the Americans on Iran -- maybe even tougher. He helped lead Europe and the United States into a war to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi.  He was so openly pro-U.S. that he was nicknamed "Sarko the American" at home.

Hollande ran against those policies -- albeit moderately. During his campaign, the socialist leader promised to speed up France's withdrawal from Afghanistan to bring troops home by the end of 2012, a year ahead of NATO's schedule. He questioned France's return to NATO's military command structure, one of Sarkozy’s pro-American moves. And he said he's "reticent"” about a U.S.-promoted European missile defense project. (On the other hand, Hollande did say he would continue Sarkozy's tough policies on Iran and Syria.)

Even on economic policy, where Hollande's policies are what Obama wanted, it's not all good news. The new French leader has promised to renegotiate Europe's fiscal pact. "Not possible," the austerity-loving German government of Angela Merkel warned on Monday. There's one thing the Obama administration likes even less than austerity -- and that's the prospect of a renewed financial crisis.

Obama and Hollande will get a chance to smooth over any differences and declare a new era of Franco-American friendship very soon. France's new president is due at Camp David for his first G-8 summit on May 18.

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