By John Gizzi
President Barack Obama on Tuesday tried to dismiss the notion that France has replaced Britain as the main U.S. partner in Europe, but it was clear during the state visit of President Francois Hollande that the two have the closest relationship between the nations’ leaders since Presidents Bill Clinton and Francois Mitterrand two decades ago.
Laure Mandeville, Washington, D.C., bureau chief of the venerable French publication Le Figaro, best captured this situation when she pointed out to Obama at his joint news conference with Hollande, “You have actually praised France very warmly today and granted our president the first state visit of your second term …
“Does that mean that France has become the best European ally of the U.S. and has replaced Great Britain in that role?”
Obama replied that he has two daughters who are “both gorgeous and wonderful. And that’s how I feel about my outstanding European partners. All of them are wonderful in their own ways.”
However, as Obama and Hollande went through a welcoming ceremony at the White House, their news conference, and a state dinner, reporters from France and the United States recalled the sharp tensions between their countries after the U.S. strike against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003.
The strong opposition by then-President Jacques Chirac to the Iraq offensive resulted in a modern-day low point of relations between Paris and Washington. In the United States, this was symbolized by the congressional cafeterias offering “Freedom Fries” in lieu of French fries.
All that was in the dim past Tuesday during the first state visit of a French president to the United States since 1996.
Hollande said Obama’s election as president in 2008 “had been welcomed in France” because “America was able to make something possible, to make progress possible.”
He went on to recall his decision last summer to stand with Obama on a strike on Syria, saying, “We were prepared to resort to force, but we found another option — negotiation.”
From France and the United States being “extremely attentive” in helping Lebanon deal with its massive influx of refugees, to his commitment to the cause of climate change, Hollande repeatedly underscored his solidarity with the American president.
The French Socialist president was warm and positive, even regarding the spy controversy by National Security Agency renegade Edward Snowden.
“Following the revelations [of European eavesdropping by the NSA] that appeared due to Mr. Snowden,” Hollande told reporters, “President Obama and myself clarified things. This was in the past.”
Hollande said, “Mutual trust has been restored, and that mutual trust must be based on respect for each other’s country, but also based on the protection of private life, of personal data — the fact that any individual, in spite of technological progress, can be sure that he is not being spied on.”
Obama’s response to Le Figaro’s Mandeville notwithstanding, there is a strong case to be made that Obama works more closely with France’s Hollande than with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Where Hollande stood firm with Obama on Syria, Cameron was unable to join any military alliance against the Assad regime when the British House of Commons voted down his proposal.
In addition, it is obvious that France is now the key conduit in trying to help Obama craft a new U.S. relationship with Iran.
Hollande said as much when he told reporters: “Nothing prevented us from having bilateral contacts, and I had some bilateral contacts. In New York I received [Iranian] President [Hassan] Rouhani during the General Assembly. So it is perfectly legitimate for discussions to take place.”
Ken Weinstein, president of the Hudson Institute, summarized the Obama-Hollande friendship to Newsmax.
“Unlike President Bush, Barack Obama has a tough time turning foreign leaders into confidants — and his judgment, as when he chose [Turkish Premier] Erdogan as a preferred interlocutor, has been wrong,” Weinstein said.
“It’s clear that Obama and Hollande have a real and deep rapport. Both need each other — Obama for guidance on Syria, where his policies have failed, and to show that he does have European allies after Snowden, and Hollande, these days, to prove that he isn’t a laughingstock but a world leader.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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