Skip to main content

Why Obama should be Hollande's friend in need

By Philippe Coste, commentator, Special to CNN
updated 7:12 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • French have been anxious since revelations about President, Philippe Coste says
  • Coste says U.S. reassured French fears they would be ignored by the superpower
  • Paris is now most active ally of U.S in military matters, Coste writes
  • For sake of harmony, Obama should help to heal bruised egos, he adds

Editor's note: Philippe Coste is the staff New York correspondent for L'Express and writes a blog on "l'express.fr." His book, published in France, is about populism and the U.S. justice system: "Quand la justice dérape" (When justice goes off track). The views expressed are his own.

New York (CNN) -- We will never know how the French would have reacted to François Hollande's marital problems if they had not happened on the eve of the French President's first full-blown State visit to Washington since Chirac's grand voyage there in 1996. Nicolas Sarkozy's trips to the United States were several notches less official and formal, which had softened the blow to our pride when Cecilia, the then-President's second wife, had refused at the last minute to come with him to a barbecue at the Bush residence in Kennebunkport in August 2007. Before dumping him for good.

This time it is different. For all the talk about a nation of indomitable spirits and liberated mores, the French were in high anxiety since the January front pages, concerned by the intricacies of the presidential soap opera, in their own special way: The president had allegedly gone to his rendezvous on a scooter, like a libidinous teenager. He had broken up with Valerie "in an impolite way," and announced it in a cold and brutal 18-word communiqué that referred to himself three times -- a no-no in any elementary school essay. Worse, much worse: it was taking place when America supposedly had its merciless eyes riveted on us in the weeks before "our" presidential visit to the Obamas.

Philippe Coste
Philippe Coste

But the fear of a new hail of clichés, the panic of not being taken seriously by the big guy across the Atlantic at a time when our economy is shaky and our international influence questioned was soothed on the red carpet of Andrews Airforce base on Monday afternoon. The "affair" has so far mainly worried the experts of protocol in the White House staff, and Americans who know whom François Hollande is (most of them thanks to the Comedy Channel's hilarious mentions of the French "Alpha Dog of the Day") seem to observe it as an exotic curiosity beyond judgment.

America has changed and learned that its officials have few lessons to give in matters of personal indelicacies. And the superpower has rarely been more low key and worried about its own image. Its share of responsibility in the financial collapse of 2008, its political paralysis since 2010 and its guilt-ridden retreat from the world after two botched wars do not favor its international credibility and preeminence.

Obama: I can do whatever I want
Monsieur Hollande comes to America alone
Does France care about Hollande's private life?

Had the alleged affair not happened, Hollande, even with his abysmal polls at home, could legitimately have played the lesson giver in the name of France and Europe. Paris, a decade after the "Freedom Fries" interlude, is now the most active and cooperative ally of the U.S in military matters, and is entitled to more efforts by the United States in the new battle fields of counter terrorism like Mali and the Sahel area. Having failed to convince Washington that American national interests were obvious in the pacification of the civil war in Central African Republic, where French troops are taking risks, France is nevertheless content not to be sent a bill by the Pentagon every time it uses American air transports in Africa. But controversies abound. Hollande, the first ally to side with Obama's threat of military intervention in Syria was abandoned overnight by Washington at the first change of domestic political winds.

He had to drag the U.S back to the drawing board after its sloppy attempt at a deal on Iran's nuclear projects. For all its good will, France, like the rest of Europe, was then shamelessly spied upon by the NSA and unlike a very angry Angela Merkel, had the good taste to forgive and forget the blunder, when he could have used the incident as an easy anti-American rallying cry for its own public opinion.

François and Barack have much to talk about during the State visit, including Hollande's sudden turn to the realistic pro-market center in economic matters, a move that enrages unions and the left wing of his own party and echoes some of Obama's own troubles. But the least the American president can do to make amends is to lend a bit of its superhuman popularity in France to the beleaguered occupant of the Elysée Palace. With unemployment still rising in our country, social and fiscal unrest brewing at the door of a seemingly insecure government, a tap on the back of the Friend in Need, some heartfelt praise during a beautiful dinner at the White House would go a long way at home and do more, in the short term, for the French bruised ego than any rehashed remembrance of Lafayette. That one is not running for office in 2017.

READ: Obama, Hollande talk up U.S.-France ties

READ: Affairs - foreign and otherwise - surround Francois Hollande's state visit

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philippe Coste.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
This looks like a ghost ship, but it's actually the site of a tense international standoff between the Philippines and China.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
The reported firing of artillery from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle, says CNN's military analyst Rick Francona.
updated 4:46 AM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
The young boy stops, stares, throws ammunition casings at the reporter's feet without a word.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
A picture taken on June 28, 2014 shows a member of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) putting on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, where people infected with the Ebola virus are being treated. The World Health Organization has warned that Ebola could spread beyond hard-hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to neighbouring nations, but insisted that travel bans were not the answer.
The worst ebola outbreak in history spreads out of control in West Africa. CNN's Michael Holmes reports.
updated 8:48 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Sure, Fido is a brown Lab. But inside, he may also be a little green.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
ITN's Dan Rivers reports from the hospital where those injured by an attack in Gaza were being treated.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Photograph of an undisclosed location by Patrycja Makowska
Patrycja Makowska likes to give enigmatic names to the extraordinarily beautiful photographs she shoots of crumbling palaces.
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
When the Costa Concordia and its salvage convoy finally depart Giglio, the residents will breathe a sigh of relief -- and shed a tear.
updated 2:08 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Flight attendants are wearing black ribbons to show solidarity with fallen colleagues in "a tribute to those who never made it home."
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT