Obama, France's Hollande hunt for Afghanistan compromise

Visiting French President François Hollande told President Barack Obama on Friday that France's combat troops would leave Afghanistan by year's end and pledged to find a way "for our allies to pursue their mission" in talks at a looming NATO summit. The two leaders also bonded over jokes about fast-food, a move that recalled ugly Franco-American tensions ahead of the war in Iraq.

France will support Afghanistan "in another way, another form" Hollande told Obama as they met for the first time in the Oval Office. But "the date of the end of 2012 is, for (French) combat troops, the final date."

Obama's NATO-backed strategy for ending the deeply unpopular war calls for shifting the burden of security to Afghan forces next year (a step the NATO summit in Chicago this weekend is expected to detail) on the way to a full withdrawal of alliance combat troops by the end of 2014. At the same time, he recently signed an accord with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that may keep American military trainers and counter-terrorism toops in the war-torn country to 2024. U.S. officials have expressed hope that France will consider a similar compromise, which could avert a possible rush to the exits by other war-weary allies.

"We'll discuss this again at the summit in Chicago, and I think that we'll be able to find a way to make it possible for our allies to pursue their mission and for France to keep the promise I made to the French people," said Hollande, who campaigned on a pledge to pull France's combat troops out by the end of the year.

"We agreed that even as we transition out of a combat phase in Afghanistan that it's important that we sustain our commitment to helping Afghans build security and continue down the path of development," said Obama.

Obama and his guest, the first Socialist French president in 17 years, seemed far closer on other issues: Both cited the need to stimulate the sputtering global economy. "Growth must be a priority, even as we get our public accounts in order," said Hollande, whose calls for jobs initiatives is a break from predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's austerity agenda. Obama and the French president were to meet hours later at Camp David with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has called for stricter fiscal discipline, at a summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations.

"We're looking forward to a fruitful discussion later this evening and tomorrow with the other G8 leaders about how we can manage a responsible approach to fiscal consolidation that is coupled with a strong growth agenda," said Obama.

The French president also said he and his host had agreed on the need for Greece to remain in the eurozone—Europe's common currency area—despite the country's profound debt crisis and calls from some quarters for dropping it from the 17-nation economic union.

"We share the same belief, that Greece must remain in the eurozone and that all of us must make an effort to achieve that goal," said Hollande. "And I wanted to send the Greek people this message: Your place is in the eurozone."

Both leaders also showed a united front on the tense diplomatic crisis over Iran's suspect nuclear program and international efforts to end Syria's bloody crackdown on opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

Obama's talks with Hollande kicked off a frenetic four days of guns-and-butter diplomacy, starting with a Group of Eight industrialized nations meeting at Camp David and continuing through the NATO summit in Chicago.

Both Afghanistan and the economy are central to Obama's legacy—not to mention his hopes for re-election in November. And the back-to-back summits offer vital opportunities to get the United States and its closest allies in closer harmony.

White House officials have worriedly watched Europe's debt crisis, concerned that a recession there could infect the already-weak American economy. And the president has made a successful handover of security responsibility from NATO-led forces to their Afghan counterparts by the end of 2014 one of his signature foreign policy goals.

"Our economies are interdependent. What happens in Europe has consequences on the United States. And what happened in the United States had consequences for Europe," said Hollande. "The more coordinated our actions, the more effective we can be."

As the meeting began, Obama referred to Hollande's youthful adventures in the United States, which he traveled in 1974 on a grant from a business school. The future president of a country famed for its food studied McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, both unknown at the time in France. "I could have made a fortune in cheeseburgers, but I finally chose politics," he recently told the New York Times.

After offering Hollande a "hearty congratulations" on his election victory, Obama noted that his guest "actually spent some time in the United States in his youth, studying American fast food--and although he decided to go into politics, we'll be interested in his opinions of cheeseburgers in Chicago."

"I want to thank President Obama for his vast knowledge of my life before I became a politician. And I want to say nothing that might suggest that cheeseburgers might have any flaws," replied Hollande.

"I just want to remember that cheeseburgers go very well with French fries," joked Obama. "No declaration about French fries," Hollande said, in English.

That light banter recalled deep tensions between Paris and Washington in the run up the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, a war France fiercely opposed. U.S. lawmakers at one time voted to change the name of "French fries" to "Freedom fries" in their cafeteria, while Air Force One served "Freedom toast." Neither food is known as "French" in France.

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