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Last updated: February 10, 2014 5:46 pm
The US and France have issued a clear call to reluctant allies to follow their willingness to intervene in international hotspots as they hailed a “deepening partnership” between the two countries.
As François Hollande flew to Washington for the first full state visit accorded a French president since 1996, he and President Barack Obama stressed the current close co-operation between France and the US on a range of sensitive security fronts, including Iran, Syria and Africa – where France has launched two military operations in the past year.
“More nations must step forward and share the burden and costs of leadership,” the two presidents wrote in a joint article published in Le Monde and the Washington Post newspapers.
Their message came within days of a flurry of calls from German leaders, led by President Joachim Gauck, that Germany should shed its reticence and no longer say “no” in principle to armed intervention.
France, with troops active in operations to stabilise Mali and Central African Republic, has been pressing Germany and other European allies to back a more proactive EU defence policy. The US has for years urged its European allies to shoulder more of their shared security burden.
“More nations must meet their responsibilities for upholding global security and peace and advancing freedom and human rights,” Mr Obama and Mr Hollande wrote.
The warm welcome extended to Mr Hollande, the first state visit by a French president since Bill Clinton hosted Jacques Chirac, underscored what the two presidents called the transformation in relations since their countries fell out bitterly over Mr Chirac’s refusal to back the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Since Britain, traditionally the US’s closest military ally, pulled back last year from joining any military intervention in Syria, France has appeared to step into the gap, with Paris taking a hard line on both Syria and efforts to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
“It is not a beauty contest between allies,” remarked a senior official in Paris. “The UK and Germany have their own strong ties with Washington. But we have now a very intense relationship at all levels of administration.”
With his approval ratings sagging as low as 19 per cent and doubts persisting over his ability to rejuvenate France’s sluggish economy, Mr Hollande will hope the three-day visit will bolster his dismal domestic standing.
He will be hoping for President Obama’s endorsement of his new pro-business economic reform programme of public spending and tax cuts.
There are points of tension, however. France has joined international protests over revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the US has engaged in mass electronic eavesdropping on foreign citizens.
Analysis of revelations about the extent of the surveillance state in the US
In Washington, there is much less sympathy for the French protests about the NSA than there is about Germany’s complaints, given the perception that France’s intelligence services conduct similar forms of surveillance.
Paris wants to use the revelations to bolster existing intelligence exchanges with the US. The senior official added: “It is not a question of joining the ‘Five Eyes’ [the anglophone countries that form an inner circle of intelligence sharing with the US], but we want to reinforce our intelligence relationship.”
The two presidents will also need to smooth over some recent friction over Iran. The US has warned France that its companies will face sanctions if they try to do business with Iran before any final nuclear deal is reached.
After more than 100 French executives from some of the country’s biggest companies visited Iran last week, secretary of state John Kerry warned: “They will be sanctioned if they do and they know it. And we’ve put them on notice.”
In their joint article, the two presidents stated their commitment to a new transatlantic trade agreement under negotiation between the US and the EU, calling it a “major opportunity to build on millions of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic”.
Mr Hollande will also make the first visit to Silicon Valley by a French president for 30 years on Wednesday. He will meet heads of companies including Facebook and Twitter to reinforce the message back home that he is backing enterprise and to persuade foreign investors that France is business-friendly, despite concerns about its high taxes and rigid labour market.
He was set to accompany Mr Obama on a visit on Monday to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the third US president who was the US minister in Paris in the run-up to the French Revolution.
Substantive talks between the two leaders are set for Tuesday, followed by a formal state dinner at the White House.
The normally affable Mr Hollande will be braced for questions about his private life following his recent separation from his erstwhile “first girlfriend”, amid reports he has been having an affair with a film actress, leaving him with no partner to take to the White House dinner.
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