France's "Mr. Normal" stands out in diplomatic debut

Reuters News
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Posted: May 20, 2012 5:20 PM
France's "Mr. Normal" stands out in diplomatic debut

By John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau

CHICAGO (Reuters) - New French president Francois Hollande likes to style himself as "Mr. Normal," but his sudden debut on the global stage this week has been anything but.

From the Oval Office to a meeting of G8 leaders at the Camp David presidential retreat to the NATO summit in Chicago, Hollande, a life-long party official who has never held a ministerial post, sometimes looked as though he were trying the role of international summiteer on for size.

Despite some awkwardness, Hollande appeared to pass his initial diplomatic tests. He claimed victory after G8 leaders backed his calls for more economic stimulus in Europe, and forged an apparently jovial relationship with President Barack Obama.

"It was my first big international meeting and in the name of France I had the objective to put growth at the heart of the debate," Hollande told a news conference after the G8 meeting concluded Saturday.

"I think the G8 was fruitful and enabled us to send a twin message. There will not be growth without confidence and there will be no confidence without growth," he said.

The opening lines of the communiqué from the world's leading industrial nations read: "Our imperative is to promote growth and jobs."

That outcome allows Hollande to argue, before parliamentary elections next month, that he honored a key campaign promise and defended France's interests abroad.

The 57-year-old spent months during France's presidential election pledging to push for a European pact to help boost growth and jobs as way to balance German-driven austerity measures.

He was visibly pleased on Saturday as Obama echoed his calls to stimulate growth.

The talks at Camp David in Maryland were the first encounter for most world leaders with Hollande, whose conciliatory, understated manner is an abrupt departure from that of the impulsive Nicolas Sarkozy.

"There is a sense that these new leaders, (Italian) Prime Minister (Mario) Monti and now President Hollande, have gotten off to a good start," said Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. "And I think that was a big part of what was accomplished at the G8."

Still, despite his promising start, Hollande faces major challenges with France's allies.

He must figure out a way to transform pro-growth rhetoric into concrete economic policies. In Chicago, he will have to square his promise to withdraw French combat troops from Afghanistan by year's end with pressure from other NATO nations to stay the course until the overall mission finishes in 2014.

Following in Sarkozy's footsteps was expected to be a hard act to follow, given how many global leaders admired the conservative French president for his quick decision-making and commitment.

"I just met with the new President of France. He is of course very different from my colleague Nicolas Sarkozy," said Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. "They are different people, they represent different political forces, it was felt during the discussion."

Dubbed "Sarko the American" in France for often aligning himself with U.S. foreign policy, Washington supported Sarkozy during the election campaign. In contrast, Hollande has made it clear that although he will be a reliable ally, he will not automatically side with the United States.

NOT ROCKING THE BOAT

During separate meetings with Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday Hollande tried to remain diplomatic, using his cerebral, unpretentious manner and distaste for confrontation to put his ideas across without rocking the boat.

"There are deep links between France and the United States: freedom, democracy, history and culture," Hollande said. "When France and the United States agree the world moves forward."

At ease in Obama's company, Hollande exchanged jokes with the American leader about cheeseburgers, French fries and Hollande's recent habit of traveling around Paris on a scooter.

"Francois. We told you that you could take off the tie," Obama told Hollande as he arrived at Camp David for the G8 dinner on Friday evening.

With all the other leaders dressed down for the evening, Hollande's arrival in a smart, tailored suit with a navy blue silk tie seemed designed to make a good impression. He turned to photographers smiling and said in English: "(It's) for my press."

Once he sat down for dinner to discuss issues from Iran to Afghanistan, France's first Socialist leader in 17 years appeared to have settled in a bit. His tie had gone.

Asked to qualify the Obama-Hollande relationship, Mike Froman, a senior White House aide said:

"It's very good. Obviously they have been spending time here together since last evening, and I think they are having very good, open, frank and honest conversations."

For all the pleasantries, Hollande stuck to his guns on perhaps the thorniest issue between the two leaders: reaffirming that there was no negotiating the early exit of French "combat troops" from Afghanistan.

But even then Hollande indicated the details of that withdrawal would not be outlined at this NATO summit, a move aimed perhaps at avoiding embarrassing Obama in his home town.

(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis. Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)