Obama, Hollande open White House talks

AFP, Friday 18 May 2012

Newly-elected French President Francois Hollande enters his first White House talks with President Barack Obama to discuss the world's economic crisis and the French-US disagreements on Afghanistan

French President Francois Hollande poses with the ministers after the first cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris. with Thursday, May 17, 2012. (Photo: AP)

French President Francois Hollande tasted the rarefied air of international diplomacy on Friday, entering his first White House talks with President Barack Obama ahead of his debut G8 summit.

Just three days after being sworn in to replace pro-American president Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande, a Socialist, began Oval Office talks focusing on the euro crisis and his vow to bring troops home from Afghanistan.

He was also due to be guest-of-honor at a lunch hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to meet British Prime Minister David Cameron who is also in the United States for a weekend of international diplomacy.

Hollande was then to head to Obama's Camp David retreat in Maryland for talks with leaders of the G8 club of developed nations, before moving on to Chicago for the NATO summit on Saturday.

Washington has stressed that despite Hollande's campaign vow to pull French combat troops out of Afghanistan this year -- ahead of NATO's 2014 timetable -- it expects close working relations with him on issues like Iran.

"I expect that we'll have good support from France on the Iran issue... as well as on a range of other issues," Obama's national security advisor Tom Donilon said.

"We'll have to work through other issues. The stances that President Hollande took during the course of his campaign obviously he intends to keep as president.

"But I, at this point, frankly, see a good relationship building between us already."

Hollande, who is expected to be a more sober, less flamboyant leader than Sarkozy, will face tough questions over that promise to pull France's 3,500 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, a year ahead of the previous schedule.

He refined his position ahead of the NATO meeting, noting that the withdrawal will be carried out "in an intelligent way" and will apply only to combat troops.

Donilon appeared to leave open room for compromise on Thursday, hinting that France would be looked to for other contributions, as the United States mulls how to pay for and train the future Afghan armed forces.

"We would look to allies to make their national decisions in the context of the overall alliance approach," he said.

"You can make all kinds of contributions. You can make combat troop contributions, you can make train and assist kinds of contributions, you can make other kinds of contributions."

Hollande's trip to Washington follows his first foreign visit to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel hours after his inauguration Tuesday, where the two leaders sought to paper over differences of approach on the euro zone crisis.

While Obama and Hollande may have differences of approach on Afghanistan, they are closer to a meeting of the minds on the economic crisis, as Hollande's call for more growth oriented policies mirrors the US leaders own approach.

Iran is another topic sure to be on the table at the international talks and Hollande has vowed to be "very firm" in dealing with Tehran's nuclear program.

Earlier this week France's former Socialist premier Michel Rocard made a private visit to Tehran where he said top Iranian officials told him they were prepared to take "forward steps" to resolve the nuclear stand-off.

The crisis in Syria will also be discussed and new French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday that France was losing patience over the failure of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan to stop the violence.

Observers say Hollande, who has never before held a government post, is likely to be cautious in his first international outings.

But even once he finds his footing, Hollande is expected to be less aggressive on the foreign stage than Sarkozy, who played a major role in international crises like the Georgia-Russia conflict and Libya war.

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