French President Francois Hollande's challenges in his new job are daunting. And Germany, Europe and the regional debt crisis clearly head up the list. Not unlike US President Barack Obama in 2008, Hollande has started by tackling what worries his voters most: the economy. The difference - and Hollande's challenge - is that in the European Union one cannot fix a national economy without at the same time hammering out foreign policy: France's debt is a European issue.
On his first evening as President of France, Hollande ate dinner in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a sign of the importance of French-German relations to both countries and to the future of Europe. What's more, when Hollande's plane was struck by lightning en route to Berlin, the new president simply returned to France to board another plane and set out again.
As evidenced by recent elections in Greece and in Germany's largest state, European voters are not happy with the austerity measures favored by Merkel and Hollande's predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy. Hollande campaigned on promises of growth, even vowing to renegotiate the fiscal austerity pact recently agreed to by most EU members. As heads of the countries with the largest European economies, he and austerity-prone Merkel must now find common ground. Hollande needs to deliver the growth policies he promised, and Merkel must stand firm on her party's watchword: debt reduction.
Foreign policy issues dominate Hollande's challenges, especially during his first weeks in office. He has pledged to withdraw all French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, and questions his predecessor's 2009 decision to place French troops under NATO command. He must quickly rebuild relations with countries that Sarkozy alienated, like Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia. And in Arab countries where Islamists dominate the political scene, the possibilities for cooperation are largely unknown.
Hollande must work all of these issues within the European framework, and not on the bilateral basis that Sarkozy favored. Having campaigned as a healer who can bringing opposing factions together, Hollande now has to repair relations within France, between France and Europe, and with the world at large.
Hollande doesn't have a foreign policy track record. Stephan Flanagan, the Henry A. Kissinger chair in diplomacy and national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has remarked that, "Hollande has been mostly a party functionary." Only 4 points on his 60-point campaign agenda pertained to foreign policy, and his speeches consistently avoided the subject.
The French people elected Francois Hollande to fix France, and, paradoxically, his success has immediately thrust him onto the international stage. On May 18 and 19, he will attend the G8 summit at Camp David in the US, followed by a NATO summit in Chicago. Not long after, he's scheduled to attend a G20 summit in Mexico. Then in June he will be a key figure at the European Council meeting in Brussels.
In the midst of such a momentous calendar, Hollande will have to bone up on the euro zone crisis; the political instability in many Arab countries, the near civil war in Syria, and the stalemate on Iran's nuclear program. Europe and the world need him to rapidly announce his thinking in each of these arenas.
The most daunting of Hollande's challenges is that all of this takes place against the French-centric mindset of those who elected him. Though wholly cognizant of the global nature of politics and economics in today's world, French citizens remain largely protectionist. They regularly criticize auto maker Renault for manufacturing in Romania, Morocco and Turkey, though these are among Renault's most profitable operations. Like Renault, Hollande must find a way to emerge as a true global brand; and, like Renault, France must become profitable on Hollande's watch, while weathering repeated storms of discontent about the international stage on which economic growth has to play out.
Yet throughout his campaign, Hollande proved critical of European institutions, and offered not a hint of how France would operate in a globalized world. French voters, with their distaste for even European integration, seem unable to accept the reality that the economic focus has shifted to Asia. Or to assimilate the fact that if France is to become competitive, it must do so within the framework of an integrated European economy. And so far, neither Hollande nor any other French politician has been able to effectively impart these facts of life.
The Merkel-Hollande business dinner on the evening of the latter's inauguration day, when an American president would be partying, seems a good omen. Hollande's campaign was shot through with anti-Europe, France-centered themes at a time when Europe needs strong integrative leadership. Signaling the will to get productive German-French relations underway without delay is all to the good in a world hungry for a cooperative solution to its economic woes.