French President Nicolas Sarkozy meets with his US counterpart on Monday in Washington amid improved relations between the two powers. But Sarkozy's bid for global currency reform could get a cool reception.
Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and Barack Obama see eye to eye on many issues
French leader Nicolas Sarkozy's meeting with Barack Obama on Monday promises to have little of the general tension that often marked Franco-American relations in the past, although the French president's ideas about toppling the US dollar from its perch as the globe's reserve currency will likely find little support.
Relations between France and the US have improved markedly since Sarkozy took over the French presidency in 2007. As early as 2006, US diplomats noted that his nickname was "Sarkozy the American" and that he was one of France most pro-US politicians, according to WikiLeaks documents leaked late last year.
It was a sea change from the presidency of Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, during whose administration tensions often ran high, especially during the administration of George W. Bush. In 2003, Chirac opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq, which sent attitudes toward France in the US plummeting. It led to boycott campaigns of French goods, the dumping of bottles of Bordeaux wine in US rivers and the renaming by some of French fries to "Freedom fries."
Economic recovery and job creation will top the agenda of the Obama and Sarkozy meeting
"You can certainly say that a new chapter in the Franco-American relationship has opened and that the relationship is very good," Ronja Kempin, head of the EU external relations department at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle.
According to her, Sarkozy came to power free of much of the ideology of his predecessors. In early speeches, he stated the split over the Iraq war was over. His personal relationship to then-President George W. Bush was warm and in 2009, he took France back into NATO's military command structure after a four-decade self-imposed exile.
"Sarkozy is much more trans-Atlantically-oriented and open to unconventional paths in foreign policy regarding the US," Martin Koopmann, a director and France expert at the Genshagen Foundation, told Deutsche Welle. "Sarkozy's roots are in eastern Europe. The US engagement for a free Europe has left its mark on him much more than it did on Chirac or Mitterrand."
However, the relationship with the Obama administration has not always been smooth. Seemingly irritated by the hysteria around Obama's election, Sarkozy let loose with several barbs that caused the US leader to turn down an invitation to the commemoration of the Normandy landings in 2009. That hatchet appears to have been buried, but some still wonder how strategically important Obama feels France, and Europe overall, is these days.
France has also been resistant to US pressure on increasing its troop numbers in Afghanistan. The Europeans were also unhappy about a Pentagon contract for airborne refuelling tankers that gave the advantage to American Boeing instead of Europe's Airbus.
Sarkozy's popularity ratings at home are at record lows
However, according to Koopmann, those are fairly small potatoes: "The foundation for a more constructive relationship is there."
In the economic sphere, there are strong mutual interests, he added. Both depend on consumer demand for economic growth and have export deficits, facts which bind them while distancing them from countries like Germany, which could play a role in the upcoming G8 and G20 discussions.
Sarkozy's focus on financial policy coincides with France's current presidency of the G20 group of the world's 20 largest economies, and the G8, comprising six major western powers, Russia and Japan. He will chair their upcoming summits.
In Washington on Monday, Sarkozy is expected to suggest a reorganization of the world monetary system that would end the US dollar's role as the world's single global reserve currency. Sarkozy is likely to try to convince Obama to agree to multilateral currency talks, a commitment the French leader secured from Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Carla Bruni, left, will be accompanying her husband to Washington, to the delight of the gossip columnists
The French leader has said that the international monetary system needs reform to prevent the volatile fluctuations in exchange rates that hinder trade. He has said an overdependence on the dollar as the de facto reserve currency leaves nations exposed to policy decisions by the US Federal Reserve, a body they have no control over.
He wants the US dollar's status transferred to a basket of currencies called Special Drawing Rights that is overseen by the International Monetary Fund.
However, it is unlikely that Obama and his administration will agree to a large overhaul of the global financial system, especially surrendering the primacy of the dollar, which many say could damage the Americans' position in the financial and monetary worlds. The Obama administration has reacted with equanimity and diplomatic niceties to the French visit.
"The president looks forward to working the President Sarkozy to sustain the global economic recovery and create jobs," the White House said in a statement. "The two presidents will also discuss a broad range of current foreign policy and security issues."
Sarkozy's trip to the US and his high-profile presidencies of the economic groupings are also meant to boost sagging popularity at home by putting him again on the world stage, a place many French like to see their leaders occupy. He needs the help, since right now Sarkozy is the least popular French president since World War II and faces a tough reelection bid in 2012.
Many of Sarkozy's reforms, such as those on the retirement age, have been unpopular
While in the past, unpopular presidents might have used the anti-American card to gain support at home, things have changed, according to analyst Kempin.
"There is still a very traditional group in France that sees closeness to the US as a bad thing. But in fact, they are a dying breed. Younger people are more internationally oriented, more socialized in an Anglo-Saxon manner than their parents. The ideological ballast that existed until well into the 90s is no longer so strong."
An even more decisive change, she added, has happened among the French elites, who now believe that a partnership with the United States gives them a stronger say in foreign and security policy.
"That is a big change in French policy," she said. "Until Sarkozy, the thinking was that France had a louder voice when it expressed its stark opposition to the US."
Author: Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge