Pool/Reuters

France’s Gamble

As America Retreats, Macron Steps Up

Despite the upbeat characterization of France as the United States’ oldest ally—from the Marquis de Lafayette’s help in the American Revolution to France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty and up through the shared fight in two world wars—the U.S.-French relationship has always been complicated. During the Cold War, French President Charles de Gaulle sided with the United States when it mattered, as during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But he also clashed with U.S. leaders as he sought to assert French autonomy within NATO and position his country outside the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s free-market policies made many French cringe (they tended to overlook his successful efforts to win the Cold War). But his French counterpart, François Mitterrand, also stood up to the Soviet Union, memorably declaring in 1983, “The pacifists are in the West, but the missiles are in the East.” After U.S. President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, the United States’ popularity in France hit rock bottom. Things got so bad that a 2003 poll found that 33 percent of French hoped that the United States would lose to Saddam Hussein. It didn’t help that Americans had started calling the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and sporting “First Iraq, then France” bumper stickers on their cars. Yet U.S.-French relations survived the disagreement over Iraq, with French President Jacques Chirac successfully seeking Bush’s support for a joint effort to get Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005. 

The election of Barack Obama certainly swayed French public opinion. By the summer of 2009, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, the United States’ favorability rating in France had soared to 75 percent (the highest score in Europe), up from 42 percent in 2003. But relations between Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were awkward. Sarkozy found his American counterpart cold, and Obama joked about Sarkozy’s looks and his fast speech. of Obama’s outstretched hand and pushed for harsher sanctions. The NATO intervention in Libya was another stumbling block, with Sarkozy frustrated by Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. bombers ten days into the operation.

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