By John Irish -
PRESIDENT Francois Hollande faces a diplomatic test three days into his term when he discusses an early exit for French troops in Afghanistan with US President Barack Obama and Nato allies in his first outing on the world stage.
France's first Socialist leader in 17 years is little known outside France and will have a baptism of fire, flying first to Germany to challenge Berlin's focus on austerity then to the US to meet Obama and attend G8 and Nato summits.
The talks in Camp David and Chicago will be the first encounter between world leaders and Hollande, a lifelong party official who has never held a ministerial post and whose affable and conciliatory manner will mark a change of style from the impulsive Nicolas Sarkozy.
"I don't see this robust internationalism or activism Sarkozy had manifested," said Stephen Flanagan at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "There is still a certain amount of French pride in this idea of still being a global actor. I doubt it will be as prominent under the Socialists."
The Afghanistan war will top the talks agenda at the Group of Eight and Nato meetings in Camp David and Chicago.
"Without wanting to take risks, I believe it is time to withdraw our combat troops by the end of 2012," Hollande said on May 2, four days before he defeated conservative Nicolas Sarkozy. "I will announce this decision at the Nato summit."
Hollande's main foreign policy pledge is popular at home, even if Defence Ministry officials believe it may prove technically complicated without putting troops in danger. "Election pledges and political reality are very different," said a Defence Ministry official, who declined to be identified, adding a mid-2013 deadline would be more plausible.
Former Socialist foreign minister Hubert Vedrine indicated last week that Hollande could seek a compromise, saying the aim would be to unveil a timetable without embarrassing Obama.
Despite his plans to challenge both German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Europe's fiscal pact and Obama over the Afghanistan pullout timetable, Hollande's aides say his conciliatory personality should make for positive diplomacy.
Sarkozy's legendary firefighting skills, which put him at the centre of the world stage during Europe's debt crisis and as leader of the West's intervention in Libya last year, make him a hard act to follow.
But Hollande, often likened to a tortoise next to his hare-like predecessor, hopes his thoughtful and unpretentious manner and his dislike of confrontation could make for strong foreign relations, even as he is keen to stick to his own ideas. For all the talk of moving away from Sarkozy's line, there appears to be a broad consensus on foreign policy.
The Socialists supported key Sarkozy decisions such as the intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast, and like the outgoing government, want to give the Arab world time to make good on democratic promises.
The 57-year-old, who is invited to the White House before the G8 talks for his first meeting with Obama, says that under his leadership Paris will be a reliable ally for Washington, but will not be tied to it.
"Hollande will be the new chief, the man of the hour at the G8 and Nato and he will be scrutinised by the others," said a French diplomatic source in the outgoing presidency involved in finalising the programme for the US meetings.
Helping him through the transition, Hollande has appointed Paul Jean-Ortiz, a career diplomat, who most recently headed up the foreign ministry's Asia department, as his diplomatic sherpa.
France has 3,400 troops in Afghanistan, 14 helicopters, 900 vehicles and 1,400 containers that would need to be shipped out. Preliminary US estimates of pullout costs for France are in the region of $150 million, the man tipped to be defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, said.
Nato allies have not given up trying to force Hollande to back down. Obama's administration sent a delegation to meet Hollande's team.