New French leader Francois Hollande wins Obama’s backing for EU economic growth

President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande agreed Friday that Europe must deploy "strong growth" measures along with austerity as it grapples with how to pull out of its economic morass.

Meeting for the first time at the White House ahead of a weekend gathering of leaders of the world’s richest nations, the two appeared relaxed with each other, joking about French scooters, American cheeseburgers and french fries.

The new French president also said, however, that he’d reminded Obama that he’d made a campaign promise to withdraw French forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year, earlier than the White House would like.

But the debt crisis was sure to dominate the G-8 meeting of leading industrial nations Friday night and Saturday at Camp David, and Obama said the two were looking forward to talking with the other leaders “about how we can manage a responsible approach to fiscal consolidation that is coupled with a strong growth agenda.”

“President Hollande and I agree that this is an issue of extraordinary importance not only to the people of Europe, but also to the world economy,” Obama said of the European crisis that some fear could slow the U.S. economic recovery, as well as complicate Obama’s chances at re-election.

Obama also supports spending on government stimulus programs to keep Europe’s economy afloat, with the administration arguing that its 2009 stimulus spending package prevented the U.S. from diving into a deeper recession. But Hollande said in his remarks, speaking through an interpreter, that “growth must be a priority.

“President Obama was able to acknowledge shared views so that we can progress.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has championed tough austerity measures, but with angry voters in France and Greece jettisoning leaders who’d supported them, she suggested this week that Germany could be open to some growth measures.

The question remains what they’d look like, said Heather Conley, a senior fellow and the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Hollande came out of the election expressing that he was going to lead Europe in a growth agenda and we’re continuing to hear this refrain, but we have to say, ‘Tell me how. Give us the specifics,’ ” she said, noting that the region needs a quick turnaround to stem Greece’s woes.

Hollande said he and Obama had discussed their concerns about Greece and “share the same views” that Greece must stay in the eurozone “and that all of us must do what we can to that effect.”

Hollande said the two also talked about Afghanistan, and he’d reminded Obama that he’d promised that French combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of this year, faster than his predecessor had planned.

The Obama administration hopes to convince Hollande to slow the withdrawal, fearing that it could trigger a run for the exits by other countries in the coalition.

The U.S. has committed to aiding Afghanistan until 2024, and Obama said he and Hollande agreed that “even as we transition out of a combat phase, it’s important that we sustain our commitment to helping Afghans build security and continue down the path of development.”

For his part, Hollande noted that France “will continue to support Afghanistan in a different way. Our support will take a different format, and all of that will be in good understanding with our allies."

With former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat, the U.S. lost a key ally in pushing sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

But Hollande said he and Obama “share views” on Iran, and that there was a need for “required firmness that Iran doesn’t get the nuclear military capability.”

Obama had a close relationship with Sarkozy, and there were indications Friday that he and Hollande had found common ground. There’s a lot at stake for both leaders at the G-8 meeting and a two-day NATO summit that begins Sunday in Chicago. Hollande, who took office Tuesday, probably will play a key role in keeping the European Union from collapsing. Obama comes to the summits facing a restive electorate that’s uneasy about the U.S. economy and the future of American involvement in Afghanistan.

The pair traded quips, and Obama noted that he was surprised to read in Hollande’s biography that the Frenchman had spent time in the U.S., studying American fast food.

“Although he decided to go into politics, we’ll be interested in his opinions of cheeseburgers in Chicago,” Obama said to laughter, adding that he’s also warned Hollande that “now that he’s president, he can no longer ride a scooter in Paris. I know because I’ve tried with the Secret Service, and they don’t let me do it.”

Hollande, who delivered extended remarks, said he wanted his first visit outside Europe to be to the U.S. to meet with Obama.

“I would like to thank President Obama for the knowledge he has of my life before I took office,” Hollande said. “I will say nothing against cheeseburgers, of course.”

Quipped Obama, “Cheeseburgers go very well with french fries.”

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