- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2014

More than a decade after Congress served up “freedom fries” as a not-so-subtle dig at French unwillingness to fight in Iraq, analysts say there has been a “role reversal” on the global stage as France leads the way in international hot spots while the U.S. sometimes assumes the unusual role of reluctant superpower.

As French President Francois Hollande began his three-day stay in the U.S. on Monday, the relationship between the two countries — which dates back to the American Revolution but in 2003 and 2004 was strained to the breaking point — has recovered, and the two traditional allies again enjoy seemingly unbreakable ties.

But in a bilateral relationship that seems unable to escape its ironic and contradictory undertones, the socialist French president and his liberal American host spent their first day celebrating the legacy of perhaps the most libertarian and power-skeptical occupant ever of the Oval Office, touring the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate in central Virginia.

With both leaders eager to play up an era of warmer relations, neither remarked publicly about the incongruity of the trip to Monticello or cited such famous anti-government Jeffersonisms as, “To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”

Political ironies aside, the strengthening of Franco-American bonds in recent years is symbolized by Tuesday night’s state dinner at the White House. But as the alliance has recovered, it also has undergone something of a shift.

While the Obama administration has taken heat from Republicans and other critics for not taking strong enough stances against Iran, Syria and in other worldwide conflicts, France often has led the way.

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France pushed for a tougher deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program last year, a position that earned Mr. Hollande praise from Israeli hard-liners and others. In Libya, France took the driver’s seat in the 2011 military strikes against the forces of Moammar Gadhafi.

Mr. Hollande was among the strongest advocates last year for military intervention in the Syrian civil war. Even after Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to dismantle his chemical weapons, the French government stressed that force was still on the table. Late last year, French forces took action against Islamist militants in Mali and remain deployed in the West African nation.

France rejoined NATO’s military command in 2009, a sign that the nation sought a greater voice among its international peers.

France’s moves over the past few years, analysts say, highlight just how dramatically things have changed from 10 years ago, when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed France as a part of “old Europe” unwilling to take military action and no longer relevant in international affairs.

“I think we have seen over the last decade a real recovery period. We are really deepening and strengthening our relationship. In some ways, we’re having a bit of a role reversal right now,” said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. “We’re seeing France leading in Iran, Libya, Syria, Mali. But I think we’re seeing it in a much more pronounced way because the U.S. is stepping back. We’re playing a supportive role. We’re not on the front lines here.”

Mr. Obama and Mr. Hollande lauded the renewed friendship in a joint op-ed this week, but it had taken root long before either man came to power.

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In 2006, three years after the Iraq War began and “freedom fries” replaced french fries in the Capitol cafeteria, congressional leaders quietly welcomed the word “french” back onto the menu.

Still, the two leaders acknowledged that there was a brief time when it looked as though the centuries-old American-French alliance might fray permanently.

“A decade ago, few would have imagined our two countries working so closely together in so many ways,” Mr. Obama and Mr. Hollande wrote in the op-ed, which ran jointly in The Washington Post and the French newspaper Le Monde. “But in recent years, our alliance has transformed. Since France’s return to NATO’s military command four years ago we have expanded our cooperation across the board. We are sovereign and independent nations that make our decisions based on our respective national interests. Yet we have been able to take our alliance to a new level because our interests and values are so closely aligned.”

But the two men also pointed out that French military forces are taking the lead in areas such as Mali.

“French and African Union forces — with U.S. logistical and information support — have pushed back al Qaeda-linked insurgents,” they wrote.

While the early days of the Iraq War may have left Americans with the impression that France was retreating from military intervention, analysts say that interpretation was overblown.

“The French have always been diplomatically active. They’ve always been a country that leans forward and, relative to other European countries, is willing to use force. If you ask them, they would say they were against Iraq because it was stupid, not because they’re against war,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department adviser for European affairs.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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