Would Hollande and Obama Get Along?

If François Hollande wins the French election, he may find an ally in the White House.

There is no obvious reason for Obama to root for socialist candidate François Hollande in the next French presidential election, where the first round will take place April 22. Indeed, Obama even authorized part of his latest videoconference with Nicolas Sarkozy to be shown on French TV, with the U.S. president saying "I admire the tough battle you're waging." Since he was elected in 2007, Sarkozy has been a good ally, loudly proclaiming his proximity to the United States, bringing France back into the integrated military command of NATO, maintaining a hard line on Iran, competently driving the G20 process and leading from the front in Libya.

Admittedly, there also have been irritants. Sarkozy thought Obama's steps to move towards full nuclear disarmament were naive. Last year, he supported Palestinian aspirations at the UN General Assembly and at UNESCO, with no coordination with Washington. In January, he abruptly announced that French soldiers would leave Afghanistan in 2013 rather than on the agreed 2014 date. And he dragged his feet on Obama's revamped missile-defense scheme. But if Sarkozy is not the reflexive Atlanticist in the mold of Tony Blair some are making him out to be and is seen by the White House as unpredictable and impetuous, at least he is a known quantity. So why should Obama prefer the devil he doesn't know?

For starters, he may have no choice. Sarkozy is a dogged campaigner, and he staged an impressive comeback in the polls during the month of March (before the Toulouse terrorist attacks, not as a result of them). But he has been trailing François Hollande from the start, not so much for the first round of the election as for the run-off, by 8 percentage points and sometimes more. Sarkozy may still make it on May 6, but it is a big challenge to be reelected in the context of the euro crisis and rising unemployment, as other EU leaders will attest. So when one adds the appetite of the energized Left—which lost the last three presidential elections since 1995 but won almost all other polls since 2007—and the enduring mistrust between "Sarko" and public opinion, this really looks like an election for François Hollande to lose.

That is what the socialist candidate has calculated, running a low-key campaign as the anti-Sarko with no fireworks. In terms of image and narrative, this means looking calm where Sarkozy is seen as agitated, thoughtful where Sarkozy is seen as impulsive and moderate where Sarkozy is seen as excessive. In terms of foreign policy, this means rejecting any sudden shift of direction and being predictable to others. No drama and no surprise: the Obama recipe.

That is at least the message delivered by Hollande’s personal emissaries, president of the Brittany region Jean-Yves Le Drian and president of the senate Jean-Pierre Bel, to the Obama administration in March: what you see is what you get. The rest of Hollande's message went this way: the moderate Left in France and in the United States, although distinct on many counts, have natural affinities. We know President Obama is in a difficult reelection campaign. We wish him well and don't want to put him in difficulty, so we will work out our potential disagreements as constructively as possible.

If François Hollande gets elected, continuity should prevail on most of the issues that are central to current Franco-American relations. There would be no disagreement on Iran, on which Hollande has announced he would maintain the tough line followed since Jacques Chirac, or on Syria, on which Right and Left are indistinguishable. Hollande said he would launch an assessment of the French full reintegration of NATO military command, of which he disapproved but made it clear he would not reverse that decision and leave again. Sarkozy and Hollande's defense budgets would be the same, with both going slightly down to make an effort at reducing the deficit but with no dramatic drop in capacity. On a few issues—like relations with Turkey—the Franco-American dialogue might actually be easier than with Nicolas Sarkozy.

Potential Clashes

There are a few areas where Hollande's position could be a problem for Obama—and here, the calendar doesn't help. If elected on May 6, Hollande will be officially proclaimed president around May 17, just before the G8 meeting at Camp David and the NATO summit in Chicago, and he may wish to go to Berlin before the G8. This means he will have very little time to negotiate on the more contentious foreign-policy points of his electoral program.