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When Empires Forgive

It is true that French President François Hollande had been in a touch of bother back home – at least in the relationships department. France had been preoccupied with the President’s overactive libido, a horny and petulant figure who was now freed of his First Lady’s presence. French leaders have, in recent years, taken the chance to travel to the New World freed of their spouses or partners – Nicolas Sarkozy did it in 2007 before heading to Washington; and Valérie Trierweiler is conspicuously absent on this visit.

That libidinal atmosphere has even rubbed off on one French paparazzo, who claimed that President Barack Obama had also partaken in other affairs of state. On this occasion, the smut searching Pascal Rostain was convinced that Obama and Beyonce Knowles had gotten it on. The Washington Post did not bite, while Le Figaro had a tentative nibble.

The emotional baggage was not, in the state setting, as significant as the statements coming forth from the White House. The official visit has provided a good occasion to reminisce about power – France, faded yet still anxious to pull punches in Africa and the Middle East; the U.S., the gloss removed from its splendour, limping and tilting towards other areas of the globe, notably the Asia Pacific. The continuous theme to this gathering: that mutual trust had been restored between the countries.

At times, the statements have been cloying. A French journalist, wanting to spring something on Obama, asked if France had displaced Britain as the current U.S. favourite. Not quite, came the coy response – after all, he had two beautiful daughters, and would not pick between them. Paternally sweet, if a touch off-colour. Such behaviour would have been unthinkable under Jacques Chirac, but then again, that France has gone into a state of enforced hibernation. The France of Sarkozy was content on moving on American coattails, and grabbing a bit of imperial splendour itself. Hollande has merely sealed that pact.

Indeed, it was clear that Father Obama had been forgiven by Son Hollande for various American infractions against the privacy of France’s citizens and its security. Both understood what was at stake – Edward Snowden had been a perfidious nuisance. He had revealed the intricate rituals of deception and surveillance states always practice with each other, often at the expense of their own citizens.

At a joint news conference, Hollande suggested that that happily restored “mutual trust” would be based “on respect for each other’s country and also based on the protection of privacy” (Euronews, Feb 12).

Fittingly, a journey to Monticello was in order. There, power and hypocrisy could mix with effortless ease. For Obama, Thomas Jefferson “was a Francophile through and through.” He did however, own slaves, a bit of a clanger in discussions about freedom. No matter: Jefferson the paradox (Obama preferred to call that relationship “complex”) reminded those today about the need to “keep fighting” for freedom.

That project, with all its neo-imperial manifestations, finds form in the policing efforts on the African continent, most notably in Mali and fencing Iran’s nuclear program. An unnamed U.S. administration official would quip that both countries had “come a long way from ‘freedom fries’ and are now working together on multiple continents to promote peace and security and economic growth and development” (New York Times, Feb 11).

Syria is the other area where measure of agreement has been struck. It would be fair to say that Hollande has at times proven to be far more hawkish than Obama, wanting to send in the jets against the Assad regime with almost childish enthusiasm. To date, U.S.-French cooperation has focused on funding more “moderate” elements of the Free Syrian Army, a policy that will bite both leaders in due course. The current stress is on attempting to impose sanctions on the regime for holding up humanitarian assistance, a situation that has proven to be common to all sides in the conflict.

While Hollande has been cosy with Obama, relations with the EU, more broadly speaking, are tense. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria J. Nuland is far more representative than any congenial display of transatlantic relations at Monticello. Sprung by Russian surveillance (we live in happy times), her views on the EU were recorded and run on YouTube via the Kyiv Post for the world to see. The Europeans were dragging their feet over a forceful approach to the Ukraine, and Nuland was having none of it. Her suggestion had been one pressing the EU to impose sanctions on the government of Viktor F. Yanukovych. Her response summed up the mood: “fuck the EU”. Ambassador Geoff Pyatt concurred.

Hollande has also had to face some American noise over a visit by more than 100 French corporate executives to Tehran in the wake of the recent interim nuclear deal that has seen incipient business opportunities taking shape. This posed a potential problem, given the hardline Hollande has taken towards Iran in the past. He assured his American hosts that he had cautioned the executives to refrain from putting pen to paper on any deals. The ground is merely being tilled, and much to the frustration of Washington, the French are ahead of the game.

If one is to believe the veteran journalist Christian Malard, the French have been far more hard nosed on the issue of Iran than Washington, while not discounting other opportunities. That’s what you get for having “complex” relations.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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