François Hollande, the first French president to pay a state visit to the United States since 1996, is seemingly a man of paradox. Before the 2012 elections, he was taunted by political rivals as “flanby” (a custardlike dessert) or “capitaine de pédalo” (paddle boat captain) — hardly epithets befitting a would-be commander in chief. Yet, within his first 20 months in office, the Socialist Party’s successor to President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered his country’s troops into two African conflicts, in Mali and the Central African Republic, and came within hours of unleashing cruise missiles against Syria.
There is a certain irony, then, that this avowedly interventionist French president is meeting an American president who has been chiefly preoccupied with the task of disengaging his country from two wearying and costly military entanglements. How to reconcile the tension between their contrasting priorities will be high on the agenda this week for President Barack Obama and Mr. Hollande.
It might be tempting to ascribe Mr. Hollande’s military decision making to political expediency, but this would be a serious misreading of why France goes to war. Presidents Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy were not shy of foreign intervention (in Bosnia and Kosovo, and in Afghanistan and Libya, respectively). Neither were their predecessors, François Mitterrand (in Lebanon and Chad) and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (dubbed “l’Africain” for his propensity for military action in Africa).
The outlier in this pattern was France’s refusal to participate in President George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. While this may have imprinted on the American psyche a tabloid press impression of French membership in an “axis of weasel,” France’s robust opposition to the Iraq war has actually reinforced the French public’s trust in the executive’s judgment on matters of war and peace — in sharp contrast to popular attitudes in America and Britain, as we saw last August during the diplomatic crisis over Syria.
None of this means that the French have turned into latter-day Prussians: Before Mr. Sarkozy intervened in Libya, barely one-third of the population supported military action. But once the campaign had begun, support jumped to 66 percent.
Experienced politicians also know that even successful wars don’t win elections. Even after the good outcome of the operation he ordered against Islamist insurgents in Mali, Mr. Hollande remarked pointedly that military intervention wasn’t what the voters had chosen him for. Yet the performance of French forces in Libya and Mali has certainly bolstered the nation’s military self-confidence.
France’s sense of having been vindicated in resisting American pressure over Iraq has also had the counterintuitive effect of making it easier now for the French to work with the United States in places and at times of their choosing. After the chemical weapons attacks in Syria last summer, the French even found themselves leading the charge for a military response, beyond what Mr. Obama was willing to countenance in the absence of congressional approval.
Differences emerged anew on Nov. 10, when France initially blocked a nuclear deal with Iran. The White House invitation to Mr. Hollande, issued on Nov. 22, could be seen as recognition that America needed to work harder to keep its ally close. But Mr. Obama should expect the French to continue to press for a tough stance in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.
Conversely, France worries deeply — as do other European and Middle Eastern allies — about America’s foreign policy shift after Iraq and Afghanistan, its reluctance to put American forces in the front line in the world’s trouble spots. France also fears the long-term consequences of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. These concerns will certainly color Mr. Hollande’s visit, albeit in a constructive spirit rather than with traditional Gallic petulance.
We can expect Mr. Hollande to stress the importance of maintaining close French-American military cooperation, whether in a region where the French are leading, like counterterrorism operations in the Sahara, or where the United States is the prime mover, like the Indian Ocean. On another front, France and Britain are building joint facilities to simulate nuclear tests in order to ensure the long-term effectiveness of their atomic stockpiles. This and the fact that Paris and London have cultivated a close military relationship help Mr. Obama: The White House is not being asked to referee a beauty contest between France and Britain.
With no immediate large-scale crisis to contend with, and in the absence of major disagreements, each president should get what he wants from this visit. For Mr. Obama, that will be a demonstration that the United States is not losing allies and influence in Europe as a lower-profile America turns toward Asia. For Mr. Hollande, it will be an endorsement of the view that France, despite its economic problems, remains a major power that counts in the eyes of the world’s super power.
François Heisbourg is a special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris-based think tank.