WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New French President Francois Hollande told President Barack Obama on Friday that he will stick by his pledge to withdraw France’s troops from Afghanistan at year’s end, a note of discord in an otherwise convivial first meeting between the two leaders.
“I reminded President Obama that I made a promise to the French people to the effect that our combat troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2012,” Hollande said after Oval Office talks with Obama.
“That being said, we will continue to support Afghanistan in a different way,” he said.
Hollande’s remarks, while not a surprise, underscore the challenge Obama faces in keeping NATO allies on board as he tries to chart a gradual course out of Afghanistan. The alliance agreed two years ago to a 2014 deadline for withdrawing most of its combat troops.
The Afghan war will be the central topic when NATO leaders meet in Chicago, Obama’s home town, on Sunday and Monday.
The United States may seek at the NATO summit to nudge France to rethink its Afghanistan troop withdrawal timetable, which differs from the alliance’s 2014 timetable.
Hollande’s main foreign policy pledge is popular at home, even if French defense ministry officials believe it may prove technically complicated without putting troops in danger.
That may not be easy. “The exit is non-negotiable. The withdrawal of French combat troops is a French decision and it will be implemented,” Hollande said.
Hollande’s position on the war did nothing to dampen what appeared to be an instant rapport with Obama, and on the day’s other major topic - the health of the global economy - they agreed that budget austerity was not the sole remedy to Europe’s economic crisis.
Those weighty issues dominated the talks between the two, but they also joked about cheeseburgers and Hollande’s former habit of riding his scooter to work.
Obama has struck up few genuinely close personal relationships with foreign leaders during his more than three years in office.
Close ties between Obama and Hollande, fresh from a May 6 election victory from which he emerged as France’s first Socialist leader in 17 years, could have wider import. Both men favor a more balanced economic approach that includes measures to foster growth as well as cuts in national budgets.
When the French president and other NATO leaders meet in Chicago, Obama will be interested in Hollande’s views on the city’s burgers.
“I also warned him that now that he’s president he can no longer ride his scooter in Paris,” said Obama, who tends to bring a business-like style to his meetings with foreign leaders but appeared relaxed in Hollande’s presence.
The bespectacled Hollande, whose low-key style contrasts with that of his flamboyant predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, spoke of U.S. friendship and France’s pride in its tendency to sometimes pursue an independent course.
Obama’s own re-election prospects in November could be in jeopardy if the euro zone crisis spins out of control and deals another blow to an already sluggish U.S. economic recovery.
He told reporters that he and Hollande spent a great deal of time discussing Europe’s currency woes.
The euro zone is a main topic for the two-day talks Obama will host at the Camp David retreat in Maryland. The G8 summit of leaders of the world’s leading economies will begin Friday evening.
Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron will be among the participants.
“We’re looking forward to a fruitful discussion later this evening and tomorrow with the other G8 leaders about how we can manage a responsible approach to fiscal consolidation that is coupled with a strong growth agenda,” Obama said.
The comment underscored his solidarity with Hollande on the view that measures to spur economic growth - and not just fiscal austerity - are needed to fix Europe’s economic woes.
Obama added that solving the euro zone crisis was of “extraordinary importance, not only to the people of Europe, but also to the world economy.”
Hollande told Obama that growth must be a priority and said the two leaders discussed their concerns about Greece. “We share the same views, the fact that Greece must stay in the eurozone and that all of us must do what we can to that effect,” he said.
Obama and other U.S. officials have repeatedly pressed European leaders to do more to spur economic growth.
Obama’s support for Hollande’s view could put pressure on Merkel, who has stressed the need for fiscal discipline to restore the health of the euro zone economies, even as voters have toppled belt-tightening governments.
Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis. Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson