Obama and Hollande bust anti-French cliches

United States President Barack Obama (right) and French President Francois Hollande (centre) are greeted by Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja (Left) upon arrival at Charlottesville Albemarle Airport on Feb 10, 2014. -- PHOTO:  REUTERS
United States President Barack Obama (right) and French President Francois Hollande (centre) are greeted by Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja (Left) upon arrival at Charlottesville Albemarle Airport on Feb 10, 2014. -- PHOTO:  REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - You win no points in modern US politics by cosying up to France.

Yet US President Barack Obama is breaking out the tricolours and booming cannon of a state visit for President Francois Hollande, a scandal-tainted socialist with anaemic approval ratings.

Mr Obama's embrace included a rare spin for a foreign leader on Air Force One and a tour of Monticello, shrine to the quintessential American francophile Thomas Jefferson.

The plan is to show that shared political and historic links with America's oldest ally trump occasional turbulence.

But the symbolism is not empty.

Officials on both sides trumpet a genuine evolution in Franco-US ties over the last 10 years, which has overcome the boorish anti-French cliches of the Iraq war years.

"We have come a long way since freedom fries," quipped one senior US official, referring to the time outraged US lawmakers blasphemed French cuisine.

So why is Mr Obama, hardly known for palling up to foreign leaders, giving Mr Hollande such a warm welcome? In the past, he has not gone out of his way to woo France: He flew there for summits and a D-Day commemoration, but never for a state visit.

So the confluence in US-France relations may have been driven by events rather than design.

Former president George W. Bush - no friend of his first French counterpart Jacques Chirac - left the relationship in decent fettle after finding a similarly hyper active soulmate in Mr Nicolas Sarkozy.

When Mr Obama's aides sat down to assess his first term, they concluded that France - bridging the Sarkozy and Hollande eras - had emerged as a stalwart ally.

Common causes included the overthrow of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, nuclear diplomacy with Iran and checking the rise of extreme Islam in Africa.

"US-French relations are very strong at the moment, particularly in the foreign policy and security area," said Ms Heather Conley, a Europe specialist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Broader American relations with the EU, soured by Edward Snowden's spying leaks are less healthy.

That is one reason why warm ties with a founding partner of the bloc are welcome in Washington before Mr Obama's visit to EU headquarters in Brussels next month.

France is also well positioned against its local rivals for America's affections.

Mr Hollande's visit comes as America's relationship with another core European ally, Germany, is at its worst point in a decade.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is fuming that US agents tapped her mobile phone and over wider National Security Agency surveillance.

And a four-letter curse aimed at EU efforts in Ukraine, by Ms Victoria Nuland, Washington's top diplomat for Europe, hardly eased her mood.

America's relationship with Britain remains special, but Mr David Cameron's Conservatives are more concerned with loosening ties with Europe than leading it.

London is also distracted this year by Scotland's independence vote.

The Prime Minister also irked US officials by failing to deliver a parliamentary majority for Mr Obama's abortive plan to bomb Syria.

Mr Hollande though, brandishing stronger presidential powers, promised staunch French support.

It has also been noted in Washington that, after an early squeal, France mostly kept its discontent over NSA spying behind closed doors.

Mr Obama also may find philosophical common ground with Mr Hollande over economics.

He is certainly more in tune with the French leader's belief that stimulating demand is a better way out of the Euro crisis than Dr Merkel's austerity straitjacket.

The White House, disengaging from foreign wars, has also appreciated France's willingness to take the lead against extremists bedding into Africa's Sahel belt.

US forces provided air refuelling, intelligence and drones when France took on Islamist militants in Mali.

It flew peacekeeping troops to the Central African Republic where French soldiers joined African Union peacekeepers.

France is also providing an at times sceptical voice in talks between world powers and Iran over its nuclear programme.

The trip to Monticello, beloved home of Jefferson, US founding father, ambassador to France and the third US president, was Mr Obama's own idea.

The US leader apparently wanted to forge a personal connection with Mr Hollande, who he hosted only briefly in Washington, after he won his election in 2012.

Mr Hollande arrived in Washington trying to shrug off a public split with girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler, which means he will turn up without a date to Wednesday's White House state dinner.

But his deep unpopularity at home lies more in his inability to carry out his promise to lift France clear of the economic mire.

A successful US visit will not alleviate the plight of Mr Hollande, who will use an onward trip to San Francisco to showcase new economic rescue plans.

But "when you are seen next to President Obama... it definitely is a plus", said Mr Guillaume Xavier-Bender, of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"President Obama still has very high ratings in France - he is a popular statesman.

"It puts Hollande at the elevation he wishes he was at more often, being seen as a great leader."