Solid friendship between Paris and Washington | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 11.02.2014
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Solid friendship between Paris and Washington

The United States and France have been friends since the founding of America in the late 18th century. US-French relations have rarely been as good as they are during a visit to Washington by the French President.

"All that we can say is merci beaucoup," US President Barack Obama likes to joke.

The President's limited French vocabulary notwithstanding, when he welcomes his French colleague Francois Hollande at the White House on Tuesday (11.02.2014), there will be a host of issues on the agenda.

Topics are expected to include how to boost the trade partnership as well as the fallout from the National Security Agency (NSA) spy scandal. But first and foremost, talks will revolve around "the shining point in the US-French relationship: the development in the defense and security sphere; in particular, the cooperation in Africa - first of all in Libya and then more recently in Mali and the Central African Republic," according to Christopher Chivvis.

"I think that's something that both sides want to see strengthened," the senior political scientist at the RAND corporation think-tank added.

French air strikes and special troops played a key role alongside the US in the 2011 toppling of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. Last year, Paris launched air strikes on Islamists in Mali, and the US was pleased to see France drive Islamist rebels from the cities in the North African country. Instead of sending combat troops to Africa, the Americans helped out with experts and drones. "It's very clear that when it comes to counterterrorism issues, France and the US see eye-to-eye," Chivvis said. "Very few other countries in the world, with the exception of the UK, probably feel as the Americans do about the terrorism threat."

Headstrong France

Mali French soldier

The US supported the French intervention against Islamists in Mali

That has not gone unnoticed in Africa. Last week, the Nigerian government appealed to the US and France, formerly a leading colonial power in the region, to take joint military action in southern Libya to oust the terrorist groups operating there.

"France has shown that it really is willing to take action and that's something that tends to impress US-policy-makers, including the people in the White House," the expert on European security issues said.

But France's inclination to take action hasn't always benefitted the relationship. Ties soured when President Charles de Gaulle, concerned about the nuclear power's sovereignty, withdrew the French army from NATO's structure of command in 1966. Washington also regarded France's post-9/11 attitude as a fauxpas and when Jaques Chirac's government refused to join the US war in Iraq, angry Americans poured French Bordeaux wines into the gutters in protest.

However the low point in the relationship didn't last, Chivvis said. "You had cooperation on counterterrorism and cooperation on Iran, and Sarkozy sent special forces to Afghanistan and normalized the relationship with NATO," the US political analyst said. Compared with US-German relations, the US and France tend to be "more or less on the same page" when it comes to economic issues, in particular the need for stimulus in Europe, he added.

Old friends

"France," President Obama has said on many occasions, "is not only our oldest ally, but also one of the closest."

That became even clearer on Syria. The British government made it clear it would not participate in a military strike on Syria, but France stood by the US. The fact that the US and France appear to be growing closer together on security and key foreign policy issues is for all to see, Chivvis said. But when Secretary of State John Kerry publicly named France as its "oldest ally," Britain was alarmed.

"It's not surprising that there should be a little bit of unease in the UK, although I don't think that they should have really too much to worry about because in the end, it just all amounts to a stronger transatlantic relationship which is in everybody's interest," Chivvis said.

Christopher Chivvis

Chivvis: France and the US "see eye to eye"

What is not in everybody's interest is Washington's spying frenzy. Both German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande were shocked and demanded clarification. In a recent interview with Time magazine, Hollande spoke of a "difficult moment not just between France and the United States, but also between Europe and the United States."

Shared values

But Hollande also said "there is no residue of bitterness between him and President Obama."

That doesn't come as a surprise to RAND expert Chivvis, who points out the statesmen are on the same wavelength. They both come from the center-left, and the presidents' personalities are similar, too, he said. "Sarkozy and Obama were really quiet different: Obama has a reputation for being 'No Drama-Obama,' and that certainly wasn't the case with President Sarkozy, but much more so with President Hollande."

Obama plans to take his French guest on a tour of Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson, the third US president. Monticello symbolizes the beginning of a long friendship: With the help of the French, the fledgling American army defeated the British colonial power. After the war, Jefferson, an avid supporter of the revolution and one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, served as ambassador to France.

Centuries later, Jefferson's successor Obama likes to quote the Declaration of Independence: "We live by a common credo - Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happyness." Just as effortlessly, Obama adds the motto of the French revolution, albeit with a distinct American accent: "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité."

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