Press briefing by President François Hollande
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for being here for this press conference. This morning, I met with President Obama, then had lunch with Hillary Clinton and her colleagues, and this evening I will be in Camp David for the G8. I wanted my first visit outside of Europe, after being sworn in as president, to be here in Washington. This opportunity was provided by the G8 meeting and by the Chicago summit.
I reaffirmed to President Obama how much I valued the relationship between France and the United States. We’ve inherited a long history, in which, despite the ordeals or as a result of the ordeals, and in spite of the differences that may have existed between our two countries, we’ve always been able to come together and agree on the key issues. And it will be the same in the months ahead. I stressed the issue of growth. And as you know, I made it the theme of the negotiations that will begin in the European Councils on the budgetary agreement, so that the growth pact will be included. But I also wanted to make it a global theme, because we have interdependent economies, and what happens in the euro area affects the American economy in the same way and we’ve seen in recent years that what happens in the United States has an impact on our own economies in the European Union.
In the same way, the relationship that we have with China must be considered with coherence in mind because in terms of what we’re demanding from the Chinese—reciprocity, the eventual convertibility of their currency, respect for a certain number of rules, we must tackle these issues together. President Obama confirmed to me that he attached great importance to growth and that we shared the same principles. We will reaffirm them to the G8. We are putting—and I’m convinced that we must do so—our public finances in order, this applies to Europe and to the United States. But we must also make growth a high priority—in ways that may differ—by improving competitiveness, facilitating trade, but also by investing in the future, mobilizing savings and coordinating economic policies. And so growth will be the major challenge over the next few weeks and months.
The second topic that I wanted to address, even if the Chicago summit will allow us to give further clarification, relates to the confirmation of the decision that I made and that I announced before the elections on May 6, i.e., the withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. For several days now we’ve been making sure that this commitment will not just be upheld but will be understood by our partners and that it will remain within the framework of the treaty that was signed between France and Afghanistan, even if it hasn’t yet been ratified, and that it will still be carried out within the framework of ISAF, that is, within the framework of NATO. But by the end of 2012, there will be no more French combat troops in Afghanistan.
We also talked at length about other issues. I was accompanied by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, by the Minister for the Economy and Finance, Pierre Moscovici, and by my staff and we addressed the issue of Iran. We’ll come back to it again at Camp David. But we want to show firmness and at the same time ensure that we can take full advantage of the negotiations so that the Iranians will be held to account. And President Obama and I agreed on this, which will allow progress to be made in Baghdad since a meeting is scheduled there. Syria is also one of our concerns. We will give the highest priority to the observers and Kofi Annan’s mission, and we will continue to put pressure on the Syrians and to ensure that the Security Council—notably with respect to the Russian position—can be fully mobilized with respect to the political solution that must be found in Syria.
These are the issues that I wanted to discuss. I will answer your questions. It was the frame of mind that was important. It’s never easy after a changeover, when you’ve worked with one president and then find yourself faced with another one. Even though, without a doubt, President Obama was well informed and prepared, and there was an excellent atmosphere, without the need to call into question—including by me—what had been done in the past. But we’re starting a new chapter, and I want to give a new direction to the relationship between France and the United States, a relationship which should be based on friendship, trust and at the same time candor. Candor and loyalty. Candor in order to be able to state our positions and loyalty because once we have adopted a common position, an agreement, we must make it as effective as possible.
And then with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we interpreted some of our policies in order to ensure that they are as effective as possible, notably with respect to an issue of concern to me, and which is also an American priority: the Sahel region. First of all because we have hostages there but also because there’s instability there, AQIM is present, and certain states are at risk, starting with Mali. Therefore, we will be careful to also focus our actions on this part of the African continent, to which I’m very much attached.
That’s it, I can answer as many of your questions as you want.
Q - Mr. President, four EU leaders will participate in this G8: Mrs. Merkel, Mr. Cameron, Mr. Monti and yourself. Firstly, did you talk about the Greek crisis with Barack Obama? What are the Americans prepared to do for Greece? And secondly, do you intend to have a mini-meeting within the G8 between the European leaders on the euro zone crisis and notably with respect to the Greek emergency?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, when I met Mrs. Merkel on Tuesday evening, we discussed the situation of Greece. At the political level, notably, new elections had just taken place. Mrs. Merkel and I affirmed our wish that Greece should remain in the euro zone and that we must do everything possible to allow it to remain. This assumes that the Greeks themselves will agree to that—this is also an election issue—and that Europe will then send a signal to Greece underscoring our attachment to its participation in the euro zone, even if Greece has commitments that it must uphold. President Obama and I spoke about the situation of Greece, especially given that a number of incidents or events have occurred in recent days. And we expressed the same attachment. Of course, President Obama isn’t a stakeholder in the euro zone and it’s up to the euro zone itself to find solutions. And it’s up to the Greeks to participate fully in what’s desired, but I think I can speak for the American president […] in saying that we—and we will reaffirm this at the G8, or in any case I will—must collectively do everything possible to ensure that the Greeks can remain in the euro zone, and that we can lend them vital support with respect to growth, employment and investment. Will there be a meeting? That’s what I’ve been asked. We’ll see, there’s just a few of us and many of us are Europeans. So without undermining any confidence that may exist, I think that there will have to be a meeting on this, but it will be in the same spirit, that’s to say we will affirm our determination, our desire, and send out the signals to promote this position, this decision, this determination to keep Greece in the euro zone, even if it’s the Greeks who will decide this.
Q - I’d like just to come back to the frame of mind that you mentioned during your interview. President and candidate Barack Obama also publicly supported Nicolas Sarkozy during the campaign, by video conference. Now you’ve been elected as a left-wing president, do you have any advice to give him in order to defeat his right-wing opponent?
We didn’t talk about that. Nor about the past or the future; I don’t think that’s our role—for either of us—to get involved in the elections of countries where we haven’t been elected. I don’t remember what Barack Obama may have done, I’m not sure that he himself remembers participating in the French campaign. You should ask him that. And he didn’t ask me anything about the American campaign. And I would not have wanted to cause him any trouble.
Q - You talked about Iran and the meeting in Baghdad on the 23rd. Did you yourselves—the French and Americans—have any concerns about a possible Israeli attack on Iran in the event that the negotiations with Iran fail?
We talked mainly about the preparations for this meeting in Baghdad and the chance we want to give the negotiations. And furthermore, France has, since my election, been doing everything possible to ensure that we approach these negotiations in a coherent manner so that we’re in a position of strength and to ensure that the Iranians definitively abandon efforts to access nuclear technology for military purposes. So we didn’t ask ourselves what would happen if the negotiations fail; we want to give these negotiations the highest priority and every opportunity to succeed.
Q - Did you discuss the issue of oil and strategic reserves with the American president?
No, not in the meeting that I had. We will certainly do so this evening at the G8. Since you’re asking about the oil issue, even if it’s just to find out whether we talked about it, my position is to utilize all instruments to lower oil prices. And if the use of strategic reserves—which President Obama didn’t discuss with me—is mentioned, I would put it down to all these instruments. For now, the price of oil is going down, although not significantly; it can most probably be explained to some extent by the economic downturn, which is not very encouraging. As well as some kind of improvement in the geopolitical situation.
Q - Mr. President, in June 2003, after the incidents at the G8 in Evian in which one person was seriously injured, you called into question the effectiveness and the legitimacy of the G8. You said in an interview to JDD, “It’s a club for the rich and powerful who express wishes and sometimes invite the poorest countries to their table without doing anything to change global imbalances.” On the eve of your participation in this G8, have you now changed your mind?
No, but there’s a difference; I’m there now. Which may allow me—even if I were to reach the same conclusions—to get things moving. I also think that since 2003 there have been changes, notably the fact that since Pittsburg the G20 has established a framework for a potential multilateral relationship for the regulation of the economy. Which means that the G8 has a more important role to play at the political level, but I will give you my position afterwards.
Q - Hello, Mr. President. The West—also meaning NATO and the UN, not to mention the Arab League—has thus far shown itself to be remarkably impotent vis-à-vis the situation in Syria and the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. I imagine that you will have a bilateral discussion with Medvedev, who is replacing his president, who’s boycotting the G8 and NATO. Are you going to tell the Russians that it would be good for them to change their strategy and maybe their approach to the problem by no longer supporting this regime and perhaps by trying to intervene or to bring it down?
Russia will be represented by Mr. Medvedev, who until recently was the President of Russia. So we have an interlocutor; there is no Russian boycott. We will tell the Russians how much significance we place on putting pressure on Syria via the Security Council. And we must convince the Russians to fully join us in these initiatives. Then, with regard to Syria itself, and its leader, we must carry out the necessary actions. Kofi Annan’s mission must be carried through to its conclusion, and then the matter will once again be referred to the Security Council. But I am not assuming that Russia will always be a protective element. In any case, how can you protect a dictator of this sort?
Q - This morning, I met a journalist who covers the White House, and I asked him, “Do you think the two men will understand one another?” He answered: “You know, we already have a socialist in the White House.” Is that your opinion?
Do we have a socialist in the Elysée? Yes. But he has become the president of all French citizens. Barack Obama is a Democrat who is the president of all Americans, and who acts on behalf of the interests of the American people. When we met this morning, we didn’t talk about ideology; we didn’t talk about partisan interests. A little while ago, I was asked a question about various people’s role in the electoral campaign. I want to say quite clearly that in general, when the head of a foreign state or government intervenes in a campaign, it brings little comfort or support to the person who receives it. Experience has shown that. It is better to receive no support from a foreign state or government.
We spoke on behalf of our two countries, bearing a great sense of responsibility. We discussed growth, the risk that the worsening situation in Greece poses to the euro zone. These are major issues that cannot wait. And right now I am taking stock of the situation. We’ve been dealing with the issue of Greece for two and a half years now, and we are still facing the risk of a default. I don’t want to second-guess what’s been done; I’m just stating a fact. We are dealing with a situation in which the euro zone must live up to its own responsibilities. But what was interesting—and I had no trouble convincing President Obama of this, as he already shared my opinion—is that the United States too is concerned with finding solutions, both for the euro zone and for growth. In this respect, we were in political agreement on the following principle: all heavily indebted countries, whether European or North American, must put their public finances in order. And all countries must be convinced, today, that in order to succeed—and they’re not all convinced of this—we need growth. My role in the meetings that take place during the coming weeks is to emphasize this, and to ensure that a pact on growth is signed and proposed by Europe. The United States is equally mindful of the fact that growth is key, on its own continent as well.
Q - Mr. President, getting back to Afghanistan. You reminded President Obama of your position on France’s military withdrawal. How did that go? Is the U.S. president satisfied with acknowledging your position, or did he try to get you to change your mind […]? And what about the aid you discussed for the period after 2014 and the financial dimension, which is a huge challenge in this whole business?
First of all, I don’t want to speak for President Obama; you will most certainly be asking him about this at the Chicago Summit and he will talk about it then. I will tell you what I myself reaffirmed. The withdrawal is non-negotiable. France has decided to withdraw its combat forces, and that decision will be implemented. Now, I am aware that France is part of an alliance, and has been engaged in this operation for a very long time, so it must make its choices after very careful consideration, consulting closely with all its allies and notably its American partner. That is why our combat troops will of course continue to fulfill the mission assigned to them until the end of 2012. You are aware that in Kapisa, Afghan troops will be taking over from French troops, enabling them to withdraw. This was confirmed during a telephone conversation with President Karzai. Then, after 2012 ends, remaining forces will be assigned to logistics units to repatriate our equipment under NATO protection, within the framework of ISAF. As for training, which is part of the treaty signed by my predecessor and President Karzai—a treaty that will be ratified by the French Parliament after the National Assembly elections—training missions will essentially involve the police and Afghan army officers. Those missions will be conducted under the auspices of ISAF. There is no compensation. It is a principle to which France and Afghanistan have already agreed. As for the financial contribution, you are right—we received a request for the period after 2014. And we take note of the request.
Q - […] Two questions: the first is on the strategic oil reserve: could these reserves be used more or less in conjunction with the European embargo on Iranian oil? And second, with regard to Spain: Spanish banks are in trouble. To avoid contagion at the European level, do you think the Spanish banks should recapitalize?
With regard to your first question: we didn’t discuss the strategic reserves at our meeting, so I can’t give you any details. Maybe we’ll talk about it at the G8. But I can’t tell you anything right now—neither the time nor the dimensions. I’ll get back to you later. As for Spain, recapitalization would definitely be preferable and no doubt it will be necessary for it to be carried out through European solidarity mechanisms.
Okay, one last question so that nobody gets upset.
Q - […] When you left the White House, you passed Lafayette Square, where there are statues of General Lafayette and General Rochambeau. You know America; you have already come here for personal reasons, but also as an elected official. What is your connection to this incredibly vast country? We are familiar with your predecessor’s relationship with this country. Are you different, from that standpoint? Do you have a personal attachment to this big country?
I’ve known the United States for a long time. My first trip, as President Obama noted, was in 1974. I was doing a study trip on fast food, which we didn’t yet have in France, and which already existed in the United States. If I had wanted to get into business, that’s what I would have chosen as a career. That study trip, which turned out to be more about traveling than about studying, gave me a love for the United States. I’ve been back regularly. Recently I was in Detroit for reasons having to do with the establishment of an American company in the Corrèze department, where I come from. That was when the automobile industry was in the midst of the crisis and Detroit was hit hard. It still is, to some degree, by this terrible situation.
Yes, I am attached [to the U.S.] on many different levels—cultural, historical, personal—and so I understand that the relationship between France and America is essential. We look to the United States whenever great causes are at stake—democracy, human rights, respect for human beings—and we are disappointed when the United States does not live up to our expectations, which is not the case today. Likewise, I am aware that our history has been characterized both by strong solidarity and, at certain times, conflicts and disputes. Need I mention what happened during the intervention in Iraq? But we have overcome those moments. And so I want the United States and France to have a relationship that is one of both proclaimed friendship and candor. Right now, as it happens, our views clearly converge on growth, on the stability of the euro zone, on the questions of Iran and Syria, on development, on Africa. At the G8, we will also discuss the issue of women. So we have every opportunity to do much more.
As it happens, elections are coming up. You are talking about the American elections, but there are also legislative elections in France, which I won’t go into here. We don’t know what we will be able to do. I think there must be a vote for coherence, but it is the French people who will decide. And here, the American people will decide. After those elections, we will have time. But until then, we must do everything we can so that President Obama and I can be useful—useful to our countries and useful to the world. To wrap up, when France and the United States stand side-by-side on a major issue, it can be solved. That is why the relationship between France and the United States is so important and so decisive.
Thank you, in any case, for noting, as President Obama has already done, that my connection to the United States is not only a gastronomic one. I wouldn’t want to give that impression, and in a little while I will address the French community living in Washington to tell them how much I value their presence, particularly when it comes to cultural and scientific relations. It is very important, because it is in those areas that France and the United States can increase the number of their exchanges. The presence of French people here in Washington and in other major American cities represents a considerable opportunity for France. Thank you.