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Obama, Hollande Meet for First Time Before G-8 Summit Convenes

France's President Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande, France's president. Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama meets today with France’s new Socialist president and self-described “normal” guy in a test for U.S.-French relations as Obama tries to shape European economic and military commitments.

The late morning meeting at the White House, the first between Obama and President Francois Hollande, takes place hours before they join other leaders of the Group of Eight nations at a summit at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

The agenda for the leaders includes Greece’s debt crisis, global food security and the role of strategic oil reserves in cushioning any economic shocks from a European Union ban on Iranian imports that begins July 1.

Hollande earlier this month became the first Socialist in 17 years to control Europe’s second-biggest economy by defeating Nicolas Sarkozy, with whom Obama developed a close working relationship in dealing with issues from Libya to Iran to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.

While Obama and Hollande will need “to work through” some issues, such as France’s commitments in Afghanistan, “I at this point frankly see a good relationship building between us already,” White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told reporters yesterday.

Hollande’s goal in his first meeting with Obama is to reassert the strong ties between the U.S. and France and to reassure that any differences of opinion shouldn’t put the alliance into question, an Hollande adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

NATO in Chicago

From the G-8 meeting in rural Maryland, most of the leaders will travel tomorrow evening to Chicago for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit where a central topic is a discussion of military issues, including funding and manpower to support Afghanistan after coalition forces leave at the end of 2014.

The economy and the continuing turmoil in Greece will dominate much of the G-8 discussion. Hollande’s advocacy of more growth and less austerity in Europe puts him at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opposes adding to nations’ debt burdens. That makes Hollande a potentially valuable ally for Obama, 50, who has advocated a more growth-focused approach.

The U.S. is seeking agreement on a common goal “to preserve the foundations of the eurozone, to address the current crisis facing Europe, particularly as a result of the political events in Greece,” Donilon said.

Greek Elections

Greece is scheduled to hold national elections on June 17, with its future in the 17-nation euro area and an international rescue at stake. The nation’s credit rating was downgraded one level by Fitch Ratings on concerns the country won’t be able to muster the political support to meet bailout terms. The Stoxx Europe 600 Index dropped 1.1 percent to 241.63 at the close of trading yesterday, for the longest losing streak since March 22.

Hollande, 57, has advertised himself to the French as a less dramatic and more emotionally predictable leader than Sarkozy, which also may mesh with Obama’s approach at a time of economic upheaval.

While Sarkozy’s support of sanctions against Iran and NATO engagement on Libya bolstered Obama, U.S. officials have yet to have detailed discussions with Hollande’s government on foreign policy matters.

The Hollande adviser said France will reiterate that Iran must fully comply with its international obligations and that the French position isn’t changing.

Afghan Withdrawal

Hollande made a campaign pledge to withdraw French combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, a year ahead of Sarkozy’s plan and against U.S. wishes. That may frustrate U.S. efforts to keep European forces in place there through 2014, and to get NATO partners to help underwrite an estimated $4.1 billion a year in assistance to the Afghans over the following decade.

Donilon signaled yesterday that Obama accepts Hollande’s plans for combat force withdrawals and will focus on what other sort of contributions Hollande may offer, such as trainers or other types of assistance.

“I’m sure that he intends to keep his campaign commitments,” Donilon said. “We’ll have a discussion with the French on where they want to go on this,” while reminding France that “you are a member of the alliance.”

Hollande’s adviser said the withdrawal won’t create a strategic hurdle for NATO goals and France isn’t encouraging the alliance to withdraw early. France won’t announce a pledge for Afghan security assistance while at NATO, the adviser said.

Camp David

The G-8 summit will be the largest gathering ever of foreign leaders at the rustic presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains. Deciding which leader gets what cabin was a protocol matter run by a deputy White House chief of staff and director of the White House Military Office, according to Donilon.

Over dinner tonight, they are scheduled to discuss security issues, including Iran, Syria, North Korea and Burma. Tomorrow’s talks are to focus on the economy, including Greece, which faces an election on June 17 that may shape whether it exits from the euro.

Merkel’s party was defeated in the nation’s most populous state on May 13, two days before data showed economic growth in the euro area stagnated.

The G-8 includes the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia. The European Union also has two seats. This is the first G-8 for Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, inaugurated earlier this month, is skipping the G-8, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place. Putin is at odds with the U.S. on issues ranging from missile defense to the approach toward Syria and Iran.

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