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Rookie Hollande takes flight at US summits
by Staff Writers
Chicago (AFP) May 21, 2012

After a week of whirlwind diplomacy, new French President Francois Hollande will go home having won the respect of world leaders and in the belief that he has already honored his promises to voters.

"He is very different than my colleague Nicolas Sarkozy," said Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, remarking on the comparison between the hyper-active and flamboyant former French president and his more down to earth replacement.

Hollande's jet-setting week may have been one of the most intense baptisms of fire any new world leader has yet experienced.

In a frenetic six days after being sworn into office, Hollande locked horns with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, then found himself the center of attention at the G8 and NATO summits in the United States.

Despite never having held a government post, Hollande appeared assured, swapping quips with Barack Obama in the Oval Office and joking with his press corps at the G8 summit at the president's Camp David retreat in rural Maryland.

But he did make a couple of minor slips, which perhaps could be chalked up to inexperience. First, the new French leader forgot to take off his tie in line with the relaxed Camp David dress code.

Then, on Monday, in Chicago, he committed the protocol faux pas of showing up late after Obama's speech at the NATO summit on Afghanistan, and appeared to explain his slip in a private conversation with a smiling Merkel.

But generally, world leaders seemed to warmly welcome Hollande -- accepting him into their club and in the process, underlining the fleeting trappings of power, as Sarkozy, always at center stage at summits, was forgotten.

His reception was all the more noteworthy because several European leaders, including Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, had appeared to be openly rooting for Sarkozy during the election.

Hollande did not hide his satisfaction that his US trip appeared to vindicate key positions which he took in his election campaign.

"I consider that the mandate entrusted to me by the people of France has already been honored," Hollande said, and events backed him up.

First, Obama and other G8 leaders echoed his campaign trail call for more growth orientated policies alongside the austerity straitjacket imposed on the ailing euro zone by Germany and the European Central Bank.

Then, NATO leaders did not blink when Hollande insisted that his pledge to get France's 3,500 combat troops out of Afghanistan this year was "not negotiable."

"This decision could have caused a misunderstanding between France and its allies, but in the event, it did not," said Hollande.

"We have made sure that France's decision is respected and will be implemented, and our allies understand our position perfectly," he said.

US military and political leaders accepted the "sovereign" decision by Hollande, but also made clear they expected France to play a non-combat role in Afghanistan right up to NATO's 2014 withdrawal deadline.

To be sure, the day may come when other leaders seek a return on their warm welcome for Hollande, and he will be judged in the United States especially on his actions rather than his Socialist ideology and fidelity to French voters.

After initial skepticism, Obama is known to have developed respect, and even affection for the pro-American Sarkozy, especially after his steadfast position and follow through with French military assets on the Libya crisis.

So Hollande has work to do to follow up on his good start.

Back home, Hollande's rave reviews were not shared by his political opponents.

Right-wing UMP opposition deputy Axel Poniatowski branded Hollande "presumptuous."

And National Front leader Marine Le Pen charged that Hollande's interventions in the United States amounted to "mere words."


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