A Beautiful Friendship – why France matters to the United States and what Barack Obama can learn from Nicolas Sarkozy at dinner tonight

30 mars 2010
Today the Presidents of the U.S. and France hold talks at the White House, followed by dinner this evening with their wives, Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. This deserves to be more than a meeting of two allied leaders and two glamorous power couples. It needs to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Barack Obama has disappointed Europeans with his apparent lack of awareness of Europe’s importance. Last June, Obama and Sarkozy saw each other in Normandy, but Obama then took time off sightseeing rather than meeting with the French president and officials — treating Paris as a tourist destination rather than a major allied capital. Tonight’s dinner is meant to make up for that.

There has seldom been an American administration better equipped to deal with Europe, especially France: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a former Young Leader of the French-American Foundation and participated in study tours to France when she was a U.S. Senator; NSC Chief General James Jones was brought up in France and is bilingual in French; Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon ran the Center for the United States and France at the Brookings Institution; Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department, was raised by a Belgian mother and is also bilingual in French. Yet the feeling persists that President Obama himself, with little experience of Europe, underestimates the value of the transatlantic partnership, perhaps especially with France. So today’s meetings and tonight’s dinner are an opportunity for President Sarkozy to underscore, gently and supportively, why France matters to the United States, both as a model domestically and as an ally internationally.

Domestically, the U.S. can learn from the French model on key American challenges for President Obama and his administration: health care (where reform has been voted but needs to be implemented), nuclear energy, high-speed and urban transport, water treatment and waste management, and interlocking infrastructure.

French life expectancy — the ultimate “healthcare outcome” — is among the top ten in the world, while the U.S. ranks 30th, according to the World Economic Forum. French health care spending per capita, though, is half that of the U.S., while France provides universal coverage through a single-payer system, with full patient choice as to the health care provider and the possibility of adding private insurance. As the U.S. implements its new health care plan, many best practices can be drawn from France.

France derives more than 85% of its electricity from nuclear power, with a perfect safety record. The high-speed TGV train and local metro and tramway systems are electric, so much of public transportation is carbon-free. France’s Areva reprocesses 96% of spent nuclear fuel (and has just announced technology to recycle 100%), whereas in the U.S. un-reprocessed nuclear waste from America’s 104 nuclear plants is buried inside mountains while still dangerously radioactive.

In the water treatment and waste management industry, France’s Suez Environnement and Veolia are two of the world’s three leading companies and provide services under long-term contracts to major cities globally. By contrast, most of the 16,000 water treatment facilities in the U.S. are operated by municipalities without access to outside capital, global research or world-class technology.

U.S. infrastructure is crumbling because of under-investment and poor planning. France is an organized country whose infrastructure has been engineered over the decades so that air, rail, water and road transport are seamlessly linked. France functions as a smart logistics platform for people, goods and services, which is why FedEx chose Paris Charles de Gaulle airport as its European hub.

France also matters to the U.S. as an ally on international policy issues.

French defense spending ranks third highest in the world, behind the U.S. and China, ahead of Britain and Russia. President Sarkozy brought France back into NATO’s combined command structure and a French general is Supreme Allied Commander for NATO Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia. France has deployed nearly 4,000 personnel to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

When France and America make policy together, others follow. This has been demonstrated with respect to Iran since May 2006, when the U.S. joined up with the EU3 — France plus Britain and Germany — after which Russia and China accepted to impose sanctions. France’s policy stance on Iran’s nuclear weapons program is even tougher than America’s. A comprehensive approach to the arc of danger from Palestine to Pakistan can only be achieved if the U.S. and Europe, with France in the forefront, craft and carry out a common policy.

Beyond defense and security, two further areas stand out for joint policy-making on a global basis: a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol and a new architecture of global financial regulation. On both these issues, French officials will need to interact with Congress as well as the Obama administration itself.

The issue of climate change requires joint western, therefore French-American leadership. The Copenhagen summit on climate change was a failure because such leadership was lacking. Given France’s environmental success, sustainable development is an area where we should make policy together, then bring others along.

France and the U.S. should adopt common positions on reform of global financial regulation. Britain, France and Germany favor stiff controls on bank risk-taking. In the U.S., Wall Street wants to get back to business as usual while Congress has been slow to act. Thorough, thoughtful financial reform is vital to economic recovery and competitiveness on both sides of the Atlantic.

So France matters to the U.S. across a range of issues, domestically and internationally — and this leaves ample scope for making policy together on key global priorities. If Nicolas Sarkozy, in his meetings and at dinner with Barack Obama today, succeeds in raising American awareness of the value of France as a model and an ally, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
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