PARIS -- The number of French people following the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States will likely be smaller than four years ago. Yet even though they are preoccupied with their own problems, which are not very different from the ones agitating American society -- from unemployment to the economic crisis -- the French have widely applauded Barack Obama's reelection. He is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the most European of North American leaders, so much so that The Economist recently portrayed him in a Basque beret and a striped French sailor’s sweater.
Although the euphoria of 2008 has somewhat diminished, France counts on increased diplomatic and economic convergence between Paris and Washington for the next four years. French President François Hollande confirmed these intentions following the reelection of his U.S. counterpart, advocating a strengthened “partnership” to “encourage the return of economic growth ... and to find solutions to crises that threaten us, especially in the Middle East.”
Paris relies on Washington to set the tone for a growth policy that would turn its back on the austerity measures Hollande criticized during his own presidential campaign.
“Barack Obama appears in favor of an economic recovery from the top: promoting fiscal justice, focused on useful spending, while implementing innovative policies that could boost growth,” said Corinne Narassiguin, Socialist Party representative of the French abroad in the United States. “When it comes to the fiscal cliff, he is willing to go much further in a showdown with Republicans. This is yet another convergence with François Hollande.” Narassiguin welcomed “the good relations established between the two men.”
But would it be possible to dream of a progressive axis between Paris and Washington? This remains utopic, according to Pierre Lellouche, former conservative minister for foreign trade and currently a member of the Foreign Affairs commission at the National Assembly. “In the United States, France has very little importance," said Lellouche. "The only European country that really matters is Germany, essentially for its driving economic role within the Eurozone. France is a useful ally, particularly within NATO, but also a negligible one.”
Yet some recent announcements from Washington have been interpreted as signs of political and cultural rapprochement. The choice of French economist Esther Duflo, a progressive intellectual known for her work fighting poverty, as an adviser to Obama has been very much appreciated in France.
Moreover, the appointment of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to succeed Hillary Clinton at the head of the U.S. State Department has also been applauded in political circles. The “francophilia” and “competence” of the former Democratic presidential candidate have been widely acknowledged.
From a strictly geopolitical point of view, France bets on the fact that second terms of U.S. presidents are generally more conducive to strong international initiatives. Paris hopes Obama will fully play his role as a peacemaker, as conflicts flare up from one end of the world to the other.
Such hopes may be unfounded, however. “The era of American external engagement is over. Debt relief will be reached through a dramatic drop in the Pentagon's budget, and Americans are not ready to get involved in a new Iraq,” says Lellouche, predicting a progressive disengagement of the United States, including in the Middle East.
Obama’s reluctance to get involved in the resolution of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East is not new. The American refusal to recognize the observer status of the Palestinian state at the UN froze any hope to see Washington become more deeply entrenched in the situation there. Only the question of Iran, and the short-term risk of a nuclearization of the region, could extract the U.S. from its torpor.
The Syrian issue remains one to which France is very committed. In his predecessor’s footsteps, Hollande was the first head of state to recognize the anti-Assad coalition as an official interlocutor, and waits for Obama to become more involved in the civil war that has killed 60,000 people in two years. The U.S. president took a first step in early December by recognizing the rebel coalition as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
The coming months will test the commitment of the newly reelected president to the international community. Obama is still very popular in France, despite his mixed first term. He will, however, seduce the French all the more if he can make a convincing appeal for peace in the next four years.
This article is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read other posts in the series, click here.