PARIS — If polls are to be believed, leftist Francois Hollande will soon be French president, and will tell Barack Obama next month that France is speeding up its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan — bucking NATO’s slower timetable.
Conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has trailed Hollande for months in the polls, is arguably the most America-friendly French leader in a half-century. He has aligned with Washington on Iran and Syria, upped France’s military presence in Afghanistan and took a major role in NATO’s air campaign over Libya that helped oust Moammar Gadhafi.
Hollande, with virtually no foreign policy experience, might be less vigorous in flexing military or diplomatic muscle abroad than Sarkozy. And that would have implications for France’s allies and enemies alike.
Whoever is elected in Sunday’s presidential elections, his decisions will carry weight on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, government repression in Syria, and the fight against terrorism and pirates in Africa, and beyond.
Foreign policy beyond Europe takes up just four points of Hollande’s 60-point platform. And while a flow chart of his campaign team lists advisers on issues like gender equality, France’s overseas territories, or sports, no one is named as his main adviser on international affairs.
“Obama didn’t have much international experience either when he was elected four years ago,” former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, considered as a possible foreign minister under a Socialist presidency, told the AP.
Hollande’s advisers say his biggest foreign policy priority would be helping to revive Europe’s economy. They say his tone would be more inclusive than what many call Sarkozy’s my-way-or-the-highway style.
Hollande, 57, is best known for serving as the Socialist Party’s leader for 11 years. His ability to go toe-to-toe with hard-charging leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, or navigate Brussels bickering at the 27-nation European Union, remains a question mark.
France, while a nuclear-armed nation and one of the world’s largest economies, often punches above its weight in international affairs: It has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and boasts the second-largest number of embassies and consular posts abroad after the United States.
Sarkozy could still surprise pollsters and win a second term. If not, Hollande would take office no later than May 16 — and international duties would soon call: It’d be on-the-job training in foreign affairs.
He has said his first foreign trip would be to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, underscoring a French-German foundation to the EU. That meeting could be tense: She has openly backed Sarkozy, and Hollande has questioned her austerity-driven approach to reviving Europe’s economy. Hollande envisages a “firm and friendly” discussion with Merkel.
Then it would be off to the United States: First to Camp David for a Group of Eight summit on May 18-19, where he would meet Obama for the first time, followed by the NATO summit in Chicago.
Even though “nothing’s certain” in the election, Hollande told reporters last week he has been preparing for the Chicago meeting with “with a lot of meticulousness” — notably on issues of missile defense and Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has become NATO’s most important mission — but it has grown increasingly unpopular more than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Sarkozy has said France would pull out combat troops from Afghanistan by 2013, a year earlier than the current NATO schedule.
Upping the political ante, Hollande has already said he plans to formally tell the Atlantic alliance that France will withdraw its remaining 3,600 troops in Afghanistan a year earlier than that.
He acknowledged the quick pullout would give logistical hassles to French troops. Advisers say Hollande would try to minimize the fallout on the allies who would need to take up the slack in the area where French forces are deployed.
But an early French pullout could have symbolic consequences or give cover to other countries eager to withdraw. Hollande’s advisers say they are wary of putting undue political strain on Obama ahead of his re-election bid in November.
Hollande, a moderate leftist on the French spectrum, has played up ideological kinship with Obama on issues including pressure on China to ease up on its controls of its yuan currency, or the need for policies aimed at boosting global economic growth.
“Even if we have several differences in approach on NATO or Afghanistan, we are aware that we’re friends and, therefore, partners,” Hollande said of the United States at the news conference.
“France, after the month of May, will share trust with the current leadership of the United States which, on many subjects, has tended to take useful positions in our view,” he said.
However, Hollande has called for a review of Sarkozy’s decision to place France within NATO’s military command in 2009. That decision reversed four decades of an independent-minded French defense policy started under Charles de Gaulle, wary of U.S. military dominance.
France under Sarkozy has taken a relatively tough stance both on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on dissent and Iran’s nuclear ambitions — and Hollande says he has no criticism for those policies.
Hollande has however taken aim at Sarkozy for cozying up to both Assad and Gadhafi earlier in his term, before turning against them.
Sarkozy has been unafraid to employ French military forces: He put France alongside Britain, under Prime Minister David Cameron, in a leading role in the NATO-led air campaign that helped topple Gadhafi last year. And French forces in Ivory Coast opened fire last year on forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo, who had clung to power despite an election loss.
Sarkozy’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, has raised the possibility of France pushing for a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which can be enforced militarily, against Syria’s regime if it fails to comply with terms of a cease-fire plan led by special envoy Kofi Annan.
Would a Hollande presidency be as tough abroad?
Jean-Louis Bianco, a Socialist Party lawmaker who was President Francois Mitterrand’s longtime chief-of-staff, said Hollande “of course” could envision the use of force abroad — as long as authorized through the United Nations.
“We have to give the Annan plan all the chance it needs,” said Bianco, perhaps the best-known name on Hollande’s team of foreign policy advisers, in a telephone interview.
The author of a 2008 parliamentary report on Iran, Bianco said international sanctions against the Islamic regime over its controversial nuclear program are having an impact.
“Our line would be one of great firmness,” he said, but insisted France would invariably oppose military action even if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. “We won’t support an Israeli or American military action in Iran … An Israeli strike won’t prevent the Iranians from continuing” their program, he said.
In Israel, Western leaders including Obama have run into “considerable Israeli intransigence” on issues like settlements in the West Bank, Bianco said, and “we aren’t going to be able to bring about any miracles.”