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Hollande: A kinder, gentler France ahead?

Associated Press Published: May 3, 2012
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PARIS (AP) — 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.

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