Hold the Freedom Fries. The new French President-elect François Hollande wants the world to know that he speaks English—better than proudly pro-American Nicolas Sarkozy—and isn't out to "make things difficult for Barack Obama" on issues like Afghanistan.
"Yes, I speak English, more fluently than the former president. But a French president has to speak French!" Hollande told Slate.fr—in English— in a wide-ranging interview published one day after he beat Sarkozy in a runoff election.
The Socialist was to meet with Obama next week before two important international summits: a G8 gathering sure to focus on ways to pull the world economy out of its slump, and a NATO meeting to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan.
Hollande said he saw potential areas of agreement with Obama on economic issues and praised the American president for charting a different foreign-policy course than his predecessor.
"I will therefore assert France's independence without making things difficult for Barack Obama," said the new French leader.
Hollande promised during his campaign to get France's roughly 3,600 combat troops out of Afghanistan by year's end. He said in the interview that he would keep that promise but do so in close cooperation with NATO allies.
Hollande has also pushed what he calls a pro-growth agenda as the remedy to economic woes in France, a break from Sarkozy's push for belt-tightening measures and a potential area of dispute with Germany. At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney played down possible disagreements, celebrating the "enduring" relationship between France and the United States and predicting it would be "a vital part of our national security in the future."
"We have issues with France that we will work on regardless of who's president," Carney told reporters.
No one on either side of the Atlantic has predicted a return to the ugly tone of Franco-American relations in the run-up the war in Iraq, when American lawmakers angry that Paris opposed the conflict voted to rename "French fries" as "Freedom fries" in the House cafeteria (the move caused some consternation in France, but not for the intended reason: "French fries" are regarded as a Belgian dish).
The election of Sarkozy played a role in patching up the frayed bilateral relations—he was even feted at the White House with a state dinner in 2007. His public fondness for the United States sometimes earned him the mocking moniker "Sarkozy the American"—but his English was poor.
Hollande, who is expected to be less friendly toward Washington, told Slate.fr that a French president must understand English and be able to have direct conversations with other world leaders.
But "when I took part in party leader summits in Europe, it was sometimes unpleasant for me to hear friends—Romanians, Poles, Portuguese, Italians sometimes—speak English," Hollande said, adding that he understood the need to use English in "informal" get-acquainted conversations.
Hollande noted that Obama was locked in his own re-election fight, and said the outcome would be of "great importance for the world," but he did not take sides.
If Obama loses, Hollande will find himself working with Mitt Romney, who speaks fluent French, the result of time spent in France as a Mormon missionary decades ago.
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