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As the United States just inaugurated a new President in historic fashion, the way the event was received in France was nearly as monumental.
Long-accustomed to vaunting it’s own great power status and refusing meekly to follow American policies, France normally would be finding all kinds of reasons to be ultra prudent and super suspicious about what a new American leader would mean for the world.
A bit of that persists, of course for certain political and foreign policy specialists but it has been pretty much drowned out by a national mood that easily could be summed up as deliriously “Waiting for Obama.”
Since he started to look like a possible winner in the U.S. presidential campaign nearly a year ago, France has been gripped, as elsewhere in the world, by a general state of Obamania.
Once he locked up the Democratic nomination the phenomenon exploded. French public opinion polls sometimes reached 85 percent approval ratings.
Much of that was due, of course, to the adverse image President George W. Bush had earned in France by attacking Iraq, an act the French populace and the French government under former president Jacques Chirac strongly condemned.
Anyone succeeding Bush would have been popular in France but the French have not just been registering approval. They have been treating Obama like a virtual pop star.
He and his wife Michelle and their two daughters have been turning up constantly on the covers of French news and “people” magazines. Radio and television programs have flooded the airwaves with documentaries about his life.
Bookstores abound with translations into French of books by him and about him. Art galleries in Paris and elsewhere have devoted exhibitions to Obama pictures and posters.
Major French television stations suspended regular programming to carry live coverage of the American inauguration ceremonies and the country was flooded on inauguration night with celebratory parties for both French and American audiences in myriad bars and restaurants.
Even the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bernard Delanoe, organized an unprecedented city hall reception that evening for Americans in Paris followed by a cocktail and a concert by the Golden Gate Quartet.
Perhaps most striking, however, have been, by French standards, the unusually positive pro-American political judgments.
With the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza dominating the headlines in the weeks leading up to inauguration day French journalists and political and economic experts were virtually unanimous in their opinion that long-lasting settlements of many such world problems could not be expected until Obama replaced George W. Bush as President of the United States and American influence and power once again could be exerted with respect.
That was an acknowledgment of fundamental American leadership and global influence that was, to say the least, quite rare in France.
The problem is that most of those same commentators remained strikingly unclear about what they believe President Obama, now that he’s officially in office, really can do about such thorny international problems. All hoped he would employ American pressure to calm world tensions but few if any knew exactly how he could do so.
What’s more, a lot of them expressed fear that unrealistic optimism about what America’s new leader can accomplish will lead to disappointment and deception down the line.
They accepted his determination quickly to close the prison camps in Guantanamo as a positive symbolic act even though problems of what to do with the prisoners there remain. But few believed it would change much in terms of international relations.
By and large they understood and approved the new President’s decision to focus his major attention on domestic economic issues and they credited him with great skill in selecting an experienced supporting team for his policies.
On the international front, almost without exception, they lauded his choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and they are happy that other key members of the President’s cabinet such as National Security Advisor General James Jones are very conversant with French issues.
On the other hand, the same commentators generally recognized that relations with France or Europe in general do not rank high on the Obama presidential agenda.
On the campaign trail, although he visited a number of foreign countries and made a landmark speech in Berlin, Obama stopped over for just a few hours in Paris and clearly indicated his most pressing foreign policy concerns are in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Asia, not Europe.
As President-elect Obama strictly adhered to his belief that “America only has one president at a time” and consistently avoided meetings with any foreign chief of state as long as George W. Bush remained in office.
On that basis he quietly rebuffed requests by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for a private meetings with him when Sarkozy was in Washington for the G-20 economic summit in December. Sarkozy even was reported to have offered, without success, to fly to Chicago for a meeting if that would be convenient for Obama.
Since then, however, the outbreak of conflict in Gaza pushed its way to the forefront of world politics and French analysts are confident that internationally experienced Secretary of State Clinton, with Obama’s blessing, quickly will move it toward the top of her action list.
However, that list will cover a lot of areas where U.S. and French policies frequently differ in varying degrees.
While both countries still proclaim support for Israel, understanding for Israeli exasperation regarding Hamas rocket attacks and the underlying problem of Iran’s role in supplying arms to the Hamas, they are not totally in synchronization about how to handle the matter with Iran.
President Obama has declined to renounce the possibility of eventual negotiations with Iran while French policy still rules it out.
While both countries agree on the need to expedite the departure of American forces from Iraq, they are not necessarily in lock step regarding their common military effort in Afghanistan.
Obama has promised strongly to increase U.S. military forces in the country. However, while Sarkozy beefed up French troop strength there a bit after he took office, his decision met with a lot of domestic opposition and future troop additions are not guaranteed.
Sarkozy often has made clear his desire to put Franco-American relations on a more friendly basis than they were in the days of Jacques Chirac and George W; Bush.
That he certainly will try to do. But he also is highly likely on various issues to fall back on classic French reluctance to provide knee-jerk agreement to whatever America decides to do.
The next face-to-face meeting of the two presidents, Sarkozy and Obama, isn’t scheduled at the moment until April 2 in London when both are expected to attend the next G-20 economic summit.
In the meantime, there undoubtedly is a lot of good will on both sides of the Atlantic to make the Franco-American alliance as tight and friendly as possible.
That will be refreshing. But, if history is any guide, it will not always be easy.