CHICAGO — In his debut in international summitry, Francois Hollande has made a splash — and held his ground on some sharply defined positions.
France's new leader grabbed attention at both the weekend's Group of Eight summit in Camp David and at the NATO summit in Chicago ending Monday, parlaying his mandate from voters in a May 6 election and showing he has his finger on the pulse of the public back home.
An informal European Union summit on Wednesday will cap his whirlwind first week as French president.
Hollande first sped to Berlin to meet Germany's chancellor, he then painstakingly formed a Socialist-led French Cabinet. He jetted to Washington, where he mused about his cheeseburger fetish in an Oval Office get-to-know with President Barack Obama that helped replace memories of Hollande's America-friendly predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande held firm on his two trenchant positions at the summits: His call for pro-growth measures to juice up Europe's lagging economy overshadowed the G-8 meeting, and his promise to break with NATO by pulling French troops out of Afghanistan ahead of other alliance members weighed heavily on the summit in Chicago.
"There was no embarrassing moment for him, despite the fact that he came right out of the election," said Dominique Moisi, a political analyst with the French Institute of International Relations, IFRI. "The difficulty starts when he comes home ... but we all know there won't be any miracles."
So far, it's mostly been style over substance. Hollande offered few details about how he would put his plans into practice.
The Socialist French president fills a seat that was occupied by Sarkozy, who was often dubbed "Sarko the American" and whose support for a hard line in Iran and NATO's intervention in Libya drew plaudits from U.S. leaders — including Obama. But at home, Sarkozy's brash, in-your-face demeanor in part led to his fall from grace at the ballot box.
So far, Hollande has ushered in a more inclusive style as French president, and the charm offensive has borne fruit. The timing of the summits also played in his favor: Obama, whose re-election hopes hinge in large part on the American economy's prospects, echoed Hollande's call for pro-growth policies at Camp David on Friday and Saturday. That gave Hollande some momentum going into the NATO summit, where some allies frowned on his early-pullout promises both privately and publicly.
Post-electoral honeymoons don't last forever. Much of the questioning that Hollande faced by his trailing press corps centered on his persona, such as his travels in America in 1974 to study a nascent fast food phenomenon and his rapport with other world leaders. Obama playfully teased him for wearing a tie to the casual-dress summit in the Camp David woods and called Hollande his "translator" for French journalists.
When one reporter at a French press scrum outside Hollande's Chicago hotel Monday asked the president if he felt "American," Hollande replied that "I don't know how to take the compliment, if that is one."
"But I try to be a Frenchman, who discusses with the Americans — in the hope of making them understand that we have common interests," he said. "I don't try to play the American, and I don't need to play the Frenchman: Be myself."
It was aw-shucks charm like that that helped put Hollande, a national lawmaker from rural central France, into the presidential Elysee Palace. Hollande made his name nationally for his quick-witted criticism against a string of conservative governments in France over the last decade, while leader of the Socialist Party.
As president, he's morphing from critic to cheerleader. At the summits he subtly claimed credit for France putting on the agenda such ideas as growth, European-supported recapitalization of ailing Spanish banks or eurobonds to help revive Europe's finances. But he's maintained his sober mindset about Europe's big economic problems.
But his personal international rapports are being tested. For all their seeming comity in Berlin last week, Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel have lined up against one another politically on both Afghanistan and their prescriptions for European economic health. She champions austerity, he wants pro-growth policies; in Chicago, she reiterated her "in together, out together" mantra for NATO's Afghan mission.
Hollande came to the U.S. summits a virtual unknown and benefiting from relatively low expectations. He had first-time introductions to Obama, Merkel, prime ministers Dimitri Medvedev of Russia and Britain's David Cameron all this week. An aide to one of the other G-8 summit attendees, who declined to be identified so as to speak freely about inside details, said that Hollande came across as firm, articulate, and knowledgeable about the agenda items.
"So far, so good," the political analyst, Moisi, said of Hollande's debut on the world stage. "I think what he had to prove was that he was a credible president of France. People had thought that he wasn't: Not just 'Mr. Normal'" — an image Hollande campaigned on — "but banal."
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