Launching Historic French Frigate for a U.S. Tour Highlights Outlook for Increasingly Strong TransAtlantic Cooperation and Leadership

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Rochefort-sur-Mer France

September 12, 2014

By Axel Krause

This past weekend many throughout the Western alliance  worried if a Washington-EU led initiative to enforce a shaky cease-fire in the Ukraine would succeed, and more broadly, if transAtlantic relations – and leadership – were reviving as some recent developments suggest.

For example, incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on  Wednesday in Brussels announced a new, streamlined, centrist-left-leaning Commission, including five former prime ministers, to lead the EU during the next five years,with a strong commitment to lead within the 28-nation bloc and abroad.

In Paris, France’s President Francois Hollande, only hours after President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, called a news conference, determined to move France to actively support the U.S.-led plan to defeat ISIS, militarily, and to successfully host an international conference on Iraq in the French capital beginning on Monday.

Three days earlier, in this 17th-century shipbuilding town tens of thousands of French and foreign visitors cheered the spectacular launch of an historic, reconstructed frigate – the triple-mast, 1.2 ton “l’Hermione:” iin 1780 it sailed for Boston with among its passengers the illustrious, flamboyant Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de La Fayette enroute to militarily support the American Revolution.

Starting next April, with a crew of 78, mainly young volunteers, and following upcoming sea trials in the nearby Atlantic Ocean, the ship under construction since 1997 will follow Lafayette’s various visits, supporting the American cause, which will be the centerpiece of festive, public celebrations next June and July in Norfolk, Alexandria, Annapolis, Baltimore, New York City,  Newport and Halifax in Canada.

“The trip is meant as a symbol of our close friendship, and of the strong, transAtlantic  alliance,” that contrasts sharply with the continuing chaos and uncertainty in the Ukraine, Iraq and elsewhere,” said Rochefort’s dynamic mayor  Hervé Blanché, who sees the project as a way of reinforcing France’s image of a strong ally of the United States, and as a tourist and investment attraction.

The relaxed, festive atmosphere here in flat, rural southwestern France with its nearby port city of La Rochelle,  contrasted sharply with the heavy politically-charged atmosphere in Paris. Much fueled by a simmering crisis and scandal surrounding President Francois Hollande’s personality and leadership, triggered by a best-selling, vindictive book about their life, “Thanks for this Moment” written by Valérie Trierweiler,  political journalist  and former girlfriend before he, unmarried, abruptly ended their relationship months ago for a younger, French actress.

Yet, not only his defensive, irritated doubts about Ms Trierweiler’s aggressive motivations expressed openly at last week’s NATO summit in Wales, but other, unrelated events cast some doubts about the relevance and accuracy of observations in this space in August by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; to the effect that “to put it mildly, the world is a mess…American foreign policy is a mess..a feckless approach…both American and European leaders weak…(the latter, Europe) being)the great no-show on the international stage.”

Consider the following:

  • At their annual, two-day summit that ended in Newport, Wales Friday, NATO leaders announced a series of limited steps to deter Russian leader Vladimir Putin from further resurgent expansion in  Eastern Europe, marked by the creation of a rapid reaction force of some 4,000 troops to be based in the area,  while supporting military cooperation with Ukraine, though shunning any offer of NATO membership in the near future.
  • It was, in the end, a successful move to, as the New York Times’ reporters on the scene concluded, “reassure those of its own members geographically closest to Russia (Poland and the Baltic states mainly) that the alliance would come to their defense if necessary.”  Both  Hollande and German Chancellor Merkel agreed to reinforce sanctions against Russia.if peace is not established in Ukraine.
  • Reflecting what we reported in his space at the time of the June 6th seventieth anniversary of the Normandy landings, Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed separatist rebels fighting in southeastern Ukraine, agreed to a cease fire that went into effect last Friday; based largely on pressure on Putin actively coordinated behind-the-scenes by President Barack Obama, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hollande, among others, notably Poland.
  • European allies plus Turkey also made it clear at the summit they will support the administration’s plan to defeat ISIS, well before Obama’s speech, many agreeing that combating terrorist threats at home, was as important a priority as establish peace and stability in the Middle East; applauding what was seen as one among other tangible signs of growing, militarily-related leadership and cohesion in the NATO alliance, extending to the Persian Gulf, led by Washington, with strong backing by Paris, London and to a lesser degree Berlin.
  • New leadership has emerged within the EU. Even though, as France’s leftist daily Libération noted maybe it’s “not yet a dream team,” following the election of Luxembourg’s  dour, Brussels insider Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commision. Nevertheless it is a new, determined team, the report added, for “relancer l’Europe,” and now includes Poland’s Prime Minister, 57-year-old Donald Tusk,  who succeeds  Herman Van Rompuy as President of the EU Council, the key decision-making body of EU heads of state and government.
  • Italy’s leftist foreign minister Federica Mogherini, 41, will succeed Britain’s Catherine Ashton as High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. What they intend to propose will surface in coming weeks in testimony to the European Parliament, amid concerns about Tusk’s and Poland’s traditionally hardline approach to Putin and Russian expansionism, while Mogeherini has been criticized as being inexperienced, and soft on relations with Moscow.
  • They are scheduled to take office along with Juncker and indeed the entire Commission on November 1, following a parlimentary vote that is expected to approve what Juncker dubbed “my winning team” of 26 other Commissioners.
  • Among them: Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmerman, who will be Juncker’s deputy, with wide powers to oversee all operations; Margrethe Vestager, a former finance minister of Denmark, who will be the Commission’s powerful enforcer of anti-trust laws; Britain’s Jonathan Hill, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, was picked by Juncker, with Berlin’s support, to oversee the EU’s financial sector, with France’s Socialist, former finance, with France’s  Socialist former finance minister, responsible for economic, financial, customs and fiscal affairs. Outgoing Home Affairs Commsisioner, Sweden’s Cecilia Malstrom, will handle trade.

True, the call by Mrs. Albright for stronger U.S. And European leadership nothwithstanding, the likes of FDR, General de Gaulle, Churchill, Reagan, Gorbachev and Jean Monet are indeed gone, and no Western leader even comes close And she is certainly right the world has become messy, assuming she means complex. But seen from this vantage point in Europe, there clearly are signs of revitalization she may have overlooked.

President Hollande is a case in point – facing the lowest popularity ratings in recent French history; a large majority of French men and women polled do not want him to run for re-election in 2017, amid continuing economic tagnation and unemployment that may continue for years and not only in France.

But not only is Hollande recovering from the shock of  Ms Trierweiler’s book in which – perhaps the most devastating  blow for a Socialist – she revealed that he has a deep dislike of the poor, she claims quoting him as terming them “the toothless.” At the NATO summit press conference he rejected that widely-quoted claim which, among others, provided no context in which the couple’s conversations took place; nor did he.  But he pledged to continue as president until his first term expires in 2017,working hard at promised economic and social reforms France badly needs. And at supporting a stronger EU at home and internationally, including the fight against ISIS.

For Hollande and his key alles Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron, these are not easy times for many reasons; such as the most recent poll in Britain showing that Scotland will vote in favor of independence next week.  But this observer for one believes their commitments and striving for sound, cooperative leading should be given the benefit of the doubt – and that we take stock again at the end of this year. Maybe Ms. Albright should as well.

–Axel Krause is the Paris- based contributing editor of TransAtlantic Magazine, author of Inside the New Europe, and for decades a reporter and editor for Business Week and the International Herald Tribune in Paris, Moscow and Washsington.

 

 

 

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