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A chance to reverse scepticism about transatlantic relations between Europe and the US

Despite mutual fears and suspicions, there is more common ground than is often appreciated and François Hollande will surely want to make that point when he visits Washington – writes Guillaume Xavier-Bender

Some 10 years ago, above the sunny beaches of Normandy, United States President George W. Bush and his French counterpart Jacques Chirac drew upon history to underscore the fact that – despite their differences – their two countries were inseparable. “History reminds us that France was America’s first friend in the world,” said Bush. Chirac added that the US was France’s “everlasting friend” and its “eternal ally”. A decade later, as transatlantic relations appear shaky, another French president – François Hollande – heads to Washington DC on a state visit that will be much more important than might have been anticipated last year.

Today, misconceptions between Washington and Paris abound amid assumptions about France’s irredeemable decline, worries about America’s rebalance to Asia, mistrust over the PRISM surveillance program scandal and diverging perceptions about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. But despite mutual fears and suspicions, there is more common ground than is often appreciated. Hollande will surely want to make that point in Washington.

On his visit next week, the French president will want to remind his interlocutors that France is not just an economic partner and that transatlantic relations cannot be equated with TTIP. With its recent military interventions in Africa, its role in diplomatic breakthroughs in the Middle East and its increased ties with Asian partners – in particular China – France still matters in global affairs. Its renewed role in the Sahel and its part in brokering a deal with Iran are accomplishments that speak for themselves. But these achievements require support from close partners including other Europeans.

With lingering economic and social pressures — including a continuing rise in unemployment that saw a 5.7 per cent increase in 2013 to 10.9 per cent – and a drop of 77 per cent in incoming foreign investment in 2013 — France needs to turn to old friends and allies to face the challenges of tomorrow. Economically, Paris is looking across the Rhine to Germany and Hollande’s official coming-out on social democracy has already been hailed in London. These efforts might bring some solace to the French just in time for their next presidential vote in 2017.

Paris is also seeking inspiration farther afield. During his visit to America, Hollande will be spending some time in San Francisco where he will meet with entrepreneurs who are shaping the economy and society of tomorrow. In this respect, he follows closely in the footsteps of another socialist French president. Back in 1983, François Mitterrand ventured to Silicon Valley where he met with a 29-year-old innovator and entrepreneur, who he later described as “having had genius in particular in the use of electronics and micro-computers”. The young man’s name was Steve Jobs. Like others, France is banking on innovation, entrepreneurship and competitiveness to boost its economy.

For US President Barack Obama, Hollande’s visit is a prelude to a busy European agenda in the first quarter of 2014. Obama’s much-awaited visit to Brussels in March should signal a further willingness to cooperate with the European Union. There is more at stake at this point in relations between Washington and Brussels than in bilateral relations with any given European Union member state. The ability of the transatlantic partners to face growing global challenge will be tested. Everywhere, Obama will need to curtail a looming wave of scepticism about the transatlantic relationship. Hollande’s visit offers an opportunity to reverse that trend.

We know that 2014 will be a year of transatlantic anniversaries and commemorations. It is an important signal that France still matters and that the time is right to turn to historical partners for advice, support and vision. Seen from Europe, transatlantic relations have lately become a topic of friction. What kind of relationship Europe wants with the US, how this partnership is to be perceived by the rest of the world and how Europeans might suffer tomorrow by being too close to Americans today are all key questions being asked. In this context, Hollande himself matters less than the comforting knowledge that the president of the French Republic has responded to an invitation from the president of the US of America — an old friend.

Guillaume Xavier-Bender is a programme officer for economics at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series: M. Hollande goes to America. The think-tank will host its annual Brussels Forum on March 21-23 – see here for further details

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