Presidents Barack Obama and Francois Hollande said the U.S. and France are embarking on a new, elevated level of cooperation as they confront global security threats in Syria and Iran, deal with climate change and seek more economic growth.
“Our countries have always been allies and have always been friends, but now we trust each other in an unprecedented manner,” Hollande said at a news conference at the White House with Obama at his side. The U.S. president said the alliance “has never been stronger.”
Obama and Hollande are emphasizing the long-standing ties between the two countries, from the American revolution and through two world wars, on the first state visit by a French leader since 1996. Hollande is the guest of honor at a formal dinner tonight at the White House.
The guest list includes business leaders such as Merck & Co. Chief Executive Officer Ken Frazier, Viacom Inc. CEO Philippe Dauman and Elon Musk, co-founder of electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc., as well as officials and diplomats from both countries and celebrities, including actors Bradley Cooper and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Hollande paid tribute to U.S. military veterans who helped liberate France in World War II and Obama also said he has accepted Hollande’s invitation to travel to France for the June 6 ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the allied invasion at Normandy.
Obama and Hollande both mentioned the French president’s planned trip to California tomorrow for meetings with executives of technology companies in Silicon Valley as an example of an opening for greater cooperation to spur new industries.
Hollande said the U.S. economic recovery is “is an opportunity for Europe, but it also is an example to be followed” in sparking competition and innovation. “That is precisely the meaning of my visit to Silicon Valley.”
The French president is having a private lunch tomorrow with executives from Internet and technology companies that is scheduled to include Musk, Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt, according to French officials.
The French economy, the world’s fifth largest, has barely grown over the past two years and unemployment is at a 16-year high. That has hurt Hollande politically and his approval rating last week fell below 20 percent, according to a TNS Sofres opinion poll for Le Figaro magazine.
Joining Hollande on his visit to the U.S. is a delegation of more than 70 business and government leaders that includes Pierre Gattaz, president of Medef, the country’s main business lobby; Alstom SA Chief Executive Officer Patrick Kron; and Safran SA CEO Jean-Paul Herteman, according to a person familiar with the plans who asked for anonymity to speak before a formal announcement.
It also includes representatives from French startups including medical device-maker Carmat SAS, car-sharing service Blablacar, and telecommunications company Sigfox.
The U.S. sees economic benefits from closer business ties with France and the potential for pushing along a trade agreement with the European Union.
“We need to get this done because an agreement could increase exports by tens of billions of dollars, support hundreds of thousands of additional jobs both in the U.S. and the European Union, and promote growth on both sides of the Atlantic,” Obama said.
As the global economy has improved since the end of the recession, U.S. exports to France have risen from $26.5 billion in 2009 to $31.9 billion last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Imports from France also have grown, from $34.2 billion to $45.3 billion over the same period.
Among companies that break down revenue from France in their filings, AptarGroup Inc., a maker of valves and pumps for fragrance and cosmetics dispensers, shows one of the highest proportions, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. About 27 percent of its revenue, or $650 million, came from the country in fiscal 2012, the latest figures it has filed show. Other companies that report earnings from France include auto parts makers ITT Corp., Visteon Corp. and BorgWarner Inc.
In a country where fine cuisine is highly valued, U.S. fast-food restaurants are seeking to make inroads in France with Burger King Worldwide Inc., McDonald’s Corp. and KFC and Taco Bell owner Yum! Brands Inc. expanding their presence.
Obama said he wants to expand such trans-Atlantic investment, both for U.S. companies in France and “any French companies who want to come here to do business.”
French direct investment in the U.S. totaled $222 billion at the end of 2012, and U.S. affiliates of French firms employ 525,000 people in the U.S., according to figures released by the White House. U.S. direct investment in France was $83 billion and affiliates of U.S. firms support 440,000 jobs there.
The U.S. and France are establishing an “Economic-Commercial Dialogue” to expand trade and investment.
“One of the great things about our commercial relationship, which is also part of the reason why I think the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership could be valuable, is a lot of the growth is in small and medium-sized businesses,” Obama said. “If we expand trade opportunities for them, that can mean jobs and growth in France, it can mean jobs and growth here in the United States.”
Relations between the U.S. and France cooled following President Jacques Chirac’s opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush. Hollande’s immediate predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, sought to repair the alliance and was honored at a White House dinner by Bush in November 2007. That closer cooperation continued when Obama took office and has been solidified by Hollande.
Asked by a French reporter whether France was replacing the U.K. as the closest U.S. ally, Obama remarked, “Oh goodness.” He then talked about having two two beautiful daughters and “I would never choose between them.”
Hollande said having four children makes it even harder for him to choose favorites. “We’re not trying to be anyone’s favorite,” Hollande said of France’s relationship with the U.S. “It’s just about being useful to the world.”