President Hollande’s State Visit – Positioning the US and France for a Shared Future

President Hollande & President Obama


President Hollande’s State Visit – Positioning the US and France for a Shared Future

When President Obama welcomed President Hollande of France for February’s State Visit, one of their first stops was Thomas Jefferson’s historic Monticello estate. Jefferson – himself a strong diplomatic presence in Paris in the early days of our nation, as well as a celebrated leader and innovative thinker – is perhaps a perfect metaphor for today’s US-France relationship: steeped in history, but focused on the future.

The fact that Hollande came for a State Visit – the first French State Visit since 1996, and on the whole rare for today’s Administration (Obama has hosted only 6 compared to Clinton and Bush Sr.’s 20 plus, each) – is a token of the great esteem between our two countries. Though not always in perfect alignment, the US and France have nonetheless enjoyed increasing cooperation in geopolitical affairs recently, such as current activity in Mali, Syria, and Iran.

At Meridian, we recognized the strength of that fundamental alliance when we formed our US-France Leadership Dialogue in 2012. We’ve written on this blog about the historical strength of this alliance, the very first for a young republic fighting for independence. It’s a partnership that has weathered many tests, not least the events of “D-Day,” June 6th, 1944 in Normandy – the 70th Anniversary of which Obama has already committed to commemorate with Hollande and others this summer in France. Yet the overarching tone of the recent visit indicated that while we may be building upon the experiences of “the greatest generation,” it is the next generation that holds the key.

To that end, Hollande’s delegation included a select group of French entrepreneurs – BlaBlaCar, a wildly successful car-sharing site, and Carmat, which invented and transplanted the first artificial human heart, for example – and he made a special trip to meet with leading American and French expat voices in Silicon Valley. Both Presidents have acknowledged a need to do more to lead the world in innovation. In a time when entrepreneurism has met some roadblocks in France, and many have turned to the US for fertile harbor, it is wise of Hollande to focus on this area. The French President spoke of making business-friendly adjustments back home, and encouraging changes in education to increase science and technology study (there’s that next generation again). Yet the pressure should not rest solely on the French shoulders – even if American culture more readily promotes an entrepreneurial spirit, there is much that US innovators can (and do) learn from their French counterparts.

That’s why Meridian is highlighting energy in our next Leadership Dialogue forum this spring – it’s an area where both countries bring expertise and experience to the table. Our various successes and failures – across the scientific, governmental, and business arenas – have primed both countries to benefit from potential collaboration on nuclear, shale, energy conservation, and renewables issues. It is also an opportunity, once more, for the next generation of cross-sector leaders to share creative new ideas, and foster the relationships they’ll need to take this cooperative ethos forward in the future.

From Jefferson, to the beaches of Normandy, to the high-tech halls of Silicon Valley, there is a drive from both sides of the Atlantic to make sure our renewed strategic cooperation continues to translate in the economic and social arenas as well. We saw this in a previous Dialogue forum focused on the ongoing TTIP negotiations, and we’ll see it again in the energy arena. In their joint op-ed – in itself unusual – Presidents Hollande and Obama emphasized both countries’ place among a bustling and often volatile world stage. How much stronger are we – how much more likely to weather the next challenges, to find the competitive advantage, to host the world’s most innovative thinkers – if we learn together and stand united, rather than apart?