Viewpoint: A socialist in the White House

Obama and Hollande
Image caption Barack Obama and Francois Hollande are both leaders of the centre-left

The first visit to Washington by new French President Francois Hollande brings the US face-to-face with a real socialist. But the two nations' policies are not as different, or as radical, as is believed.

In American politics, the ability to speak French has long been a liability.

The last time French was seen as cultured, and broadly enviable, was 50 years ago, when another very young president accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris. She charmed the world with her perfect verb construction in the language that once symbolised diplomacy.

In certain Washington circles, though, the word "socialist" also conjures up images of bolsheviks - of the movie Reds, if we're feeling romantic, of Stalin if we're not. (Don't quibble over the differences between communism, Marxism and socialism. These are enormous stereotypes we are talking about.)

So when the first French Socialist Party president comes to visit this weekend, dropping in on the president who has been labelled a socialist by his detractors (for introducing a form of moderately available health care that would have the actual French rioting in the streets), it will be curious to see how President Barack Obama's cruel chorus of naysayers respond, and how the French public will react.

It would not be the first time that the Franco-American alliance has been tested - as much by real issues as by the cliches within which our leaders have circled each other, testily, carefully, angrily, for over a decade now.

It does not help that during the Republican primaries, one of the means of bashing Mitt Romney was to accuse him - like John Kerry! - of speaking French.

Wild-card president

That there are real issues at stake, is of course, no small matter.

The immediate conundrum involves the campaign promise by Francois Hollande to pull out of Afghanistan immediately and completely by the end of 2012. This undermines the Nato alliance's Lisbon accords by a full two years.

If that happens with no negotiation and no small compromises, there will be much embarrassment.

Both sides should remember the poisoned Spain-US relationship, when Jose Luis Zapatero pulled out of Iraq, immediately, without compromise or conversation, after his surprise election in 2004. Then-President George W Bush never spoke to him again.

Obama would not follow suit. Paris, to be frank, is more useful and necessary to Washington than Madrid was. But it could make life sticky and uncomfortable for all involved.

The Washington Post recently called Hollande a "wild card" at the G8, as he is untested, and uncertain entity.

But "the truth is in recent months Sarkozy was to the right of the Obama administration," says Justin Vaisse, director of research for the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Hollande is actually closer to Obama than Sarkozy." He means, in part, Hollande's positions on austerity - a call for growth and not just belt tightening.

Indeed perhaps the French and the Americans, despite our history of mudslinging, are really more alike than different. And these two leaders may enjoy each other, may agree with each other, more than others in the past.

Hollande is a softer touch man than the swaggering Sarkozy. He has been a behind-the-scenes guy, an intellectual, an aesthete. For better or worse, so is Obama.

"Socialist" labels not withstanding, both men come from the grounds of new progressive idealism, each within the definitions of the countries from which they hail. They are representative of the centre-left, albeit on a spectrum of that ideology.

Though American conservatives love to hate France, the two countries have cautiously reconciled since the dark days of the Second Iraq War. Sarkozy made great efforts to repair transatlantic rifts.

That relationship was thoroughly poisoned during the spring of 2003 when France not only refused to back the Bush assault on Baghdad, but also shouted that it was folly.

From Washington, or at least from neo-con Washington, Paris looked unsportsmanlike for not joining the alliance. From Paris, Washington looked like a warmongering, fire-starting, adolescent.

In 2003, 25% of the French told pollsters they were cheering for Saddam, and Le Monde sneered at the "imperial arrogance" of Mr Bush. Americans were boorish cowboys.

In the United States, politicians championed changing "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries" and attacked the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" - a phrase coined by the Simpsons which was joyfully, cruelly, employed by conservative American writers.

The underlying sentiment was that the Elysee Palace was ungrateful for our help in World War II. The overt statement was one of bile and nasty wording. Americans living in - or even visiting - Paris were labelled "traitors."

Those days left wounds. But Sarkozy's efforts to re-engage with Washington, and Hollande and Obama's natural affinity for growth over austerity, and progressive idealism, might be enough to ensure French fashion is as celebrated as it deserves to be (God knows Washington could use it).

And as for Hollande - he knows well that Obama is in an election year. Far be it from him to push a pidgin-French speaking Republican into the White House.

Sarah Wildman is a visiting scholar at the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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