France’s President Francois Hollande used his White House debut Friday to restate his intention to get French combat troops home from Afghanistan this year -- breaking with NATO’s 2014 schedule.
Hollande met President Barack Obama for the first time since taking office three days ago, ahead of a testing weekend of international summits, with G8 leaders at Camp David and NATO chiefs at a 61-nation gathering in Chicago.
“I recalled to President Obama that I had made a promise to withdraw our combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2012,” Hollande said, as the two leaders spoke to reporters in the Oval Office.
“I also stipulated that there would still be support in another form,” Hollande said, adding that the French withdrawal would be done in consultation with French allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Obama did not dispute Hollande’s position, but stressed that NATO states must sustain their commitment to help “Afghans build security and continue down the path of development.”
Washington is currently soliciting funding from its allies to ensure training and financing for Afghan armed forces after NATO combat troops leave -- which it estimates could cost around $4 billion a year.
Apart from Afghanistan, both sides sought common ground, with Obama styling the partners as complimentary as cheeseburgers and French fries, though alarm over the euro zone tempered Hollande’s visit.
The two men adopted a common push for pro-growth economic policies going into the G8 summit later Friday, after an era of austerity failed to lift Europe out of a situation which now threatens to interrupt the U.S. economy recovery.
Both sides went out of their way to stress that the Franco-U.S. alliance, which has been beset by difficulties at times, would survive the change of power in Paris intact.
Obama said he had watched the “remarkable” election in France and offered Hollande, a Socialist, his “hearty congratulations.”
“(I) assured him that the friendship and alliance between the United States and France is not only of extraordinary importance to me but is deeply valued by the American people,” Obama said.
Obama also made his sober visitor smile as he said he had been reading how Hollande used to zip around Paris on a motorized scooter and understood the French leader had studied US fast food while touring America as a young man.
“Cheeseburgers go very well with French fries,” Obama said, seeking a gastronomic metaphor to sum up a relationship that was so strained by the Iraq war that the junk food staple was once renamed “freedom fries” by U.S. lawmakers.
Hollande, in a sharp change from the hyperactive and flamboyant style of Sarkozy, spoke firmly, but with little drama.
He said he and Obama had reached “convergence” on pro-growth policies in Europe.
Hollande also offered a reminder of a fact that Obama knows only too well as he seeks reelection in November hampered by a sluggish U.S. economy that hardly needs a new blow to growth from reeling Europe.
“Our economies are dependent on one another, and what happens in Europe has consequences in the U.S. and vice versa,” said Hollande.
Obama said the situation was an issue of “extraordinary importance” not just to the people of Europe but to the entire world.
Both leaders said they also spoke about Iran’s nuclear challenge, Syria's crackdown on dissent and the Arab Spring uprisings, all of which are expected to come up at the G8 summit later on Friday at Camp David.