Monsieur Hollande: Obama's new friend

 

Francois Hollande and Barack Obama met at the White House

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The French, President Barack Obama likes to remind us, are America's oldest allies.

France's new socialist President, Francois Hollande, may turn out to be a valuable new friend as well.

He will be welcomed at the White House before the G8 conference gets underway.

There is no doubt this summit will be dominated by the latest appalling and enthralling instalment of the Greek tragedy.

Mr Obama is by no means alone in urgently wanting more action to stop the crisis in its tracks before it spirals even further out of control, wrecks the European economy and sends shock waves across the Atlantic.

Mr Hollande is something of an unknown quantity in Washington, although the White House sent a team to Paris last week to get to know his closest advisers. I get the impression they liked what they heard.

How the two men get on personally will matter a lot. But Mr Obama likes ideas more than chit-chat and they are, at least on the surface, ideological allies.

Most of the key European leaders he's dealt with are from the centre-right. So Mr Hollande, a fellow member of the centre-left may come as a welcome change. I've been joking for a while that President Obama is the last Keynesian standing. Perhaps not any more.

The White House is unambiguous in its support for his agenda.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told me what the administration is paying attention to in Europe.

"We've seen not just President Hollande but many different leaders within Europe acknowledge the importance of pursuing growth, at the same time as they're pursuing the austerity targets, so we think that sets the basis for a good discussion," he said.

He said the increased focus on growth was welcome, but what does he mean?

"Things like a growth pact, as you had Chancellor Merkel make comments about, perhaps some type of stimulus around Greece, so we think that all of these are elements of the package that can help Europeans deal with the crisis they are in and contribute to the global recovery."

I am not suggesting for a moment that it will be Mr Obama and Mr Hollande against the rest, for Mr Hollande is not the only new boy.

This is the first G8 for Italy's Mario Monti too. He is seen as someone who's moving his country in a credible direction, and who may be a source of new ideas.

The most vocal demands for more action have been from British Prime Minister David Cameron. He's been outspoken on the need to bring the crisis to a head, one way or another.

And while defending his government's austerity programme he, too, is talking about growth, more "collective support and collective responsibility" and a new eurozone monetary policy.

President Obama, the White House says, wants to provide leadership, and stress it is imperative there be a comprehensive solution to the crisis.

He'll do it in a fairly cozy, intimate setting. There's only enough room at Camp David, nestled amid the Maryland mountains, for a cabin for every leader, and they'll meet around a dining room table.

The G8 used to be for leaders of the main economies to chew the fat in an informal setting, without agendas or advisers, and he wants it to be more like that again.

In this intimate setting Angela Merkel might find herself under some very polite post-prandial pressure.

The Americans have never understood why Germany has not taken their advice and allowed the European Central Bank to behave more like the Fed.

They've made the point many times in the past and have always been rebuffed. But the dynamics in the room have shifted slightly and they'll make the point again. As Ben Rhodes put it very diplomatically:

"It's a European challenge in the eurozone and it's going to demand a European solution - we've always said that.

"You can look at the lessons of our own crisis where you needed very assertive action by government to send a message to markets that we were going to deal with the crisis, that we were going to recapitalise banks, that we were going to get growth and job creation moving again."

"What we can do is share lessons from our own experience."

Don't expect any dramatic statements after the meeting. I am certainly not holding my breath for anything that could really be called "news".

There might be real movement out in Maryland's hinterlands, but any result may only come to light after another European summit next week.

 
Mark Mardell, North America editor Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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