Finding the Pragmatism behind Hollande’s Rhetoric
PARIS — Newly-elected French President François Hollande came to Chicago intending to challenge U.S. President Barack Obama and other European leaders over Afghanistan by reiterating his electoral pledge to withdraw of all French combat troops by the end of 2012. France has around 3,400 troops deployed in Afghanistan, making it the fifth biggest contingent. The French decision will inevitably have significant political, moral, and strategic implications, already expressed by the Taliban statement that other countries should follow the French lead and pull out their troops. But by specifying in recent days that only combat units would be withdrawn, Hollande has opened a window for negotiations on French troops staying to carry out their training missions. At the end of the day, his decision will hinge on the reassurances that the Obama administration will offer for post-2014. Hollande’s policy orientation exemplifies the traditional Gaullist-Mitterandist ambiguous posture vis-à-vis the United States. A slightly more independent security relationship with both NATO and the United States will be accompanied by a desire to strengthen France’s role in decision-making as well as the European common defense policy. But this is not exactly a radical shift. Sarkozy himself departed from U.S. positions on several important issues, including nuclear disarmament, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, and Libya, by initially resorting to an ad hoc contact group, sidelining NATO. Yet pragmatism remains. Hollande recognized that NATO will continue to serve French national security interests and that he cannot depart completely from past French commitments in the Alliance. His objective of reassessing the French role in NATO comes just as its military presence and thus its influence within NATO has in fact increased considerably, and France now holds a number of high-level positions in NATO’s command structure. Beyond the Chicago summit, the question for France and many other European countries is how to engage with a United States that is focused more on the rest of the world than with Europe. Indeed, French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian has advocated greater French investment in European partnerships, arguing that the U.S. strategy towards Asia puts France in a leadership position in Europe. This can be seen as a response to Obama’s new defense strategy, which called for burden-sharing and for Europe to assume more security responsibilities. But Hollande seems to be going against the tide. His priority remains resolving the eurozone crisis, and Libya still casts a shadow over Europe’s defense policies and the difficulties faced by France and Britain to build a strong coalition. With those realities in mind, NATO can be expected to continue to act as the core transatlantic security alliance in which France should continue to invest. NATO is an excellent indicator of the state of transatlantic relations, and the impact of the economic crisis on defense budgets should induce more unity and common strategic thinking. Vying for a stronger European voice should not come at the expense of solidarity with the transatlantic partners. Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer is Director of the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.