WASHINGTON — Just a decade after congressional cafeterias replaced french fries with freedom fries to protest France’s resistance to the Iraq War, the two countries are seemingly joined at the hip. So close that when President Barack Obama hosted French President Francois Hollande for a state visit Tuesday, a French reporter asked whether her country had replaced Great Britain as Uncle Sam’s best European buddy.
Obama sought to deflect the question, likening Britain and France to his two “gorgeous and wonderful” daughters and saying he’d never choose between them.
“And that’s how I feel about my outstanding European partners,” Obama said. “All of them are wonderful in their own ways.”
The U.S. and Great Britain have long championed a “special relationship” dating back decades, but Hollande, too, looked to downplay the global grading system.
“There are historic links, we share common values, and I can see that views converge on many issues,” he said at the White House, a day after Obama took him for a personal tour of Monticello, the Virginia home of one-time envoy to France Thomas Jefferson.
“It’s not about hierarchy. It’s just about being useful to the world, because the friendship between the United States and France is not just about strengthening our ties – economic ties, cultural or personal ties – and that already would be a great deal. It’s not just about bringing our two societies closer to one another. It’s not just about sharing technology, no. What makes this friendship between the United States and France is the fact that we can hold values at a specific point in time with this American presidency and with this French presidency, if I may say so.”
Both men are center-left leaders and agree on many major foreign policy issues. Among them: working to curb Iran’s nuclear program and trying to convince Russia and Iran to drop their backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The French and U.S. are rather astonishingly on the same page on international issues,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, where he served as research director of the Center of the United States and Europe, and a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff. “There has been a concerted effort to work well together.”
The White House bestowed on Hollande its highest and rare honor: a state visit and dinner, with more than 300 people expected at the White House late Tuesday for the black tie affair and a meal of American caviar, rib eye and wine. Hollande – a party of one after revelations of an affair disrupted his relationship with his girlfriend – arrived at the White House Tuesday morning to a military salute and invited Obama to France on June 6 for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The president accepted.
Obama’s words on the relationship may ruffle some feathers abroad. Nile Gardiner, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, noted that Obama has tended to draw little distinction between U.S. allies in Europe.
“To him France isn’t very different than Britain, and that of course has caused some consternation in London," he said.
Though Obama last summer scrapped plans to strike Syria and instead sought congressional approval even after France was already on board, both presidents portrayed the move as prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to endorse a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
Obama and Hollande acknowledged that the full cache of weapons hasn’t been destroyed. Obama said that despite two rounds of talks in Geneva, negotiators are “far from achieving” a resolution to the crisis.
Both presidents also pledged cooperation in efforts to convince Iran to give up its nuclear weapons aspirations. Although a French trade delegation recently visited Tehran to scope out business opportunities with the long-isolated regime, Obama said the U.S. will continue to enforce certain sanctions against the country as it negotiates an end to its nuclear weapons program.
Businesses may be exploring, but they do so “at their own peril right now,” Obama said.
“We will come down on them like a ton of bricks with respect to the sanctions that we control,” he pledged.
Hollande noted the president of the France “is not the president of the employees union,” and that French companies “make their decisions when it comes to travel.”
But, he said, he “certainly let them know that sanctions were in force, and would remain in force,” and that unless Iran renounces a nuclear weapons program “fully and comprehensively,” that no deals could be signed.
“That’s what I told French businessmen, and they are very much aware of this situation,” Hollande said.
And although the French were not as piqued as the Germans at revelations about the extent of the U.S. surveillance program, a French reporter asked Obama whether France would get a “spy agreement” with the U.S.
“There’s no country where we have a no-spy agreement,” Obama said. But he said the U.S. is committed to making sure it protects the privacy rights of not just Americans, but people across the globe.
“We do remain concerned, as France is, and as most of the E.U. is, with very specific potential terrorist networks that could attack us and kill innocent people,” Obama said. “And we’re going to have to continue to be robust in pursuit of those specific leads and concerns. But we have to do it in a way that is compatible with the privacy rights that people in France rightly expect, just like they do here in the United States.”