France’s New Socialist President Gets Swift Invitation to the White House

Patrick Goodenough | May 7, 2012 | 4:54am EDT
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French president-elect Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler wave to supporters after greeting crowds gathered to celebrate his election victory in Bastille Square in Paris, France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

( – President Obama wasted no time inviting French President-Elect Francois Hollande to the White House, suggesting a meeting in Washington just days after France’s first socialist leader in 17 years takes office next week.

In an election run-off on Sunday, Hollande defeated center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been widely viewed as the most U.S.-friendly French president in half a century.

The new president will be sworn in on May 15, three days before Obama is due to host the leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries at Camp David, Md.

In a congratulatory phone call Sunday, Obama proposed that Hollande meet him at the White House before the G8 summit, White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

“President Obama indicated that he looks forward to working closely with Mr. Hollande and his government on a range of shared economic and security challenges,” he said.

“President Obama and President-elect Hollande each reaffirmed the important and enduring alliance between the people of the United States and France.”

Immediately following the G8 summit on May 18-19, Obama will host a two-day NATO summit in Chicago.

The participation of Hollande rather than Sarkozy will likely have an impact on the alliance gathering, since the Socialist Party candidate campaigned on a pledge to withdraw France’s forces from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan by year’s end – a target Sarkozy called “irresponsible and even dangerous.”

France is currently ISAF’s fifth-biggest contributor (after the U.S., Britain, Germany and Italy), with 3,300 troops in Afghanistan. Eighty-three French personnel have been killed there between the summer of 2004 and last March.

Although Hollande backed the decision to support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan after 9/11, he opposed Sarkozy’s move increasing the number of French troops there in 2008.

In another potential NATO spat, Hollande has voiced some doubts about Obama’s proposals for a missile defense system in Europe designed to protect against missile attack from Iran or other hostile states – an important item on the agenda in Chicago.

Apart from the G8 and NATO, France is also a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and its foreign policy decisions will bear strongly in the coming years on a range of international issues, including the standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Iranian regime depicted Sarkozy as a hawk for leading European efforts to tighten sanctions against Tehran and for his warnings that preemptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities may be necessary; and an “Islamophobe” for banning Muslim burqas.

Hollande’s policies on Iran are yet to be laid out – his election platform had little to say on foreign policy – but Iranian commentators during the campaign argued that the Socialist candidate would be significantly better for Tehran.

On the burqa ban, Hollande – who abstained when the matter came before parliament for a vote year – has said he will not reverse the policy. But he also said, without elaborating, that he will ensure that it is “applied in the best way.”

In the European Union and eurozone theater, Hollande is poised to clash with Germany’s conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel. He favors promoting growth – through government-sponsored stimulus – over the austerity policies championed by Merkel, whose country is the most powerful in the eurozone.

In his first victory speech, Hollande signaled that this would be a priority for him, telling supporters that he would tell his European partners, beginning with Germany, that “austerity is not an inevitability.” Germany is the first foreign country he plans to visit after his swearing-in.

At home, Hollande has pledged tax hikes for the wealthy and tax increases on large corporations. On the sensitive issue of immigration, he is also expected to take a softer line than his predecessor, including case-by-case assessment of illegal immigration cases. Sarkozy had promised to strengthen border controls and halve the number of legal immigrants allowed to settle in France.

During his five-year presidency Sarkozy visited the U.S. nine times. The first, three months after his May 2007 election, was a working visit with President Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine. Further visits during the Bush presidency came in Nov. 2007 (working visit, address to Congress), Oct. 2008 (met Bush at Camp David) and Nov. 2008 (G20 summit).

Sarkozy visited the U.S. five times after Obama became president – in Sept. 2009 (G20 summit), Mar. 2010 (working visit), Apr. 2010 (nuclear security summit), Jan. 2011 (working visit) and Sept. 2011 (U.N. General Assembly session).

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