The French elections and the future of the Franco-American relationship

The electoral victory of François Hollande as president of France presents an opportunity to reflect on how far U.S.-France relations have evolved in recent years. This opportunity should also form the basis for a renewed commitment toward cooperation rather than a step backward.

It has been said that the Franco-American relationship is “never as bad as it seems or as good as you think it is.”

It was less than a decade ago when talk of “freedom fries” and a U.S. “hyper-power” spilled over from tensions between the two nations over the second Gulf War and other differences in foreign policy. In France, there was a perception of unchecked American power. In the United States, there was an equal frustration at a key ally breaking ranks when it counted.

While President Nicolas Sarkozy’s election five years ago represented a continuation of a conservative government in France, it marked a sea change in the bilateral relationship between the United States and France. Sarkozy’s views of the United States were shaped not only through summers he spent in New Hampshire but also through his participation as a young mayor in the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. His experience with American society, culture and people provided him with a more nuanced and balanced view of our country. He took that sentiment to his presidency. On his 2010 visit to the United States, Sarkozy said, “Seldom in the history of our two countries have the shared values between the United States of America and France been so aligned.”

Over the last several years, we have seen a growing alliance in the area of foreign policy. France and the United States have been in broad agreement on their support for developments of the Arab Spring, from NATO action in Libya to increased sanctions against Iran to discourage the development of its nuclear program. That close cooperation on defense and security has been accompanied by coordination on political and financial policies to spur economic recovery. This level of cooperation should not be taken for granted.

Today, France and the United States are major economic partners, with the United States being France’s top investment destination. According to data from the French Embassy in the United States, France invested $163 billion in the United States in 2010. More than 2,800 French companies employing 550,000 people operate in the United States and generate more than $170 billion in revenues.

Last year, my organization, the Meridian International Center, launched a U.S.-France leadership dialogue under the guidance of our respective ambassadors in Washington and Paris. This initiative is designed to broaden and deepen the policy dialogue beyond traditional issues involving NATO cooperation and international trade. Instead, the dialogue will seek to identify areas of common interest in promoting innovation, technology cooperation and leveraging our shared democratic ideals in an increasingly complex world.

We see the need for increased cooperation with France in a number of areas: economic growth and integration, food security and international development, and on energy policy in a time when both countries are looking at clean-energy options and rethinking nuclear energy.

One would hope that a renewed Franco-American relationship would unleash the power of our private sectors while offering some assurance to those in our societies who have suffered as a result of the financial crisis. We will also look at how our two nations are confronting these challenges, whether that means a stronger regulatory environment or greater fiscal discipline, and share our perspectives.

While it is clear that economic concerns were of paramount importance to the electorate, Sarkozy should be recognized for his contributions in strengthening U.S.-French relations.

The door should be open for Hollande to preserve and build on this improved bilateral relationship, despite inevitable pressure on him to chart a different course.

After all, it was former President François Mitterrand, also a socialist, and former President Reagan who managed to develop a close working relationship during the Cold War that withstood the deployment of intermediate nuclear missiles to counter the Soviet threat in Europe and other challenges.

In short, we should appreciate the value of our relationship with France. From Marquis de Lafayette’s contributions to the American Revolutionary War to the sacrifices of the U.S. Rangers at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, our alliance is based on strong foundations. On both sides of the Atlantic, we should be careful stewards of an important partnership built on democratic ideals, the sacrifice of our veterans and our mutual interests so that both countries can reap the benefits of an even more dynamic relationship in the future.

Holliday is a former U.S. ambassador for special political affairs to the United Nations. He is currently the president and CEO of Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C.