By Dan Robinson
Presidents Barack Obama and Francois Hollande hailed the strength of the U.S.-France alliance as Hollande continued a state visit to the United States. They also voiced unified positions on Iran sanctions and Syria.
On a bright but cold Washington day, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcomed Hollande in the traditional ceremony on the White House South Lawn.
After inspecting a military honor guard, the two leaders shook hands with spectators holding French and American flags. Obama paid tribute to a deepening alliance with America’s oldest ally.
“Yesterday at Monticello, we reflected on the values that we share, the ideals at the heart of our alliance. Here under the red, white and blue, and the blue, white and red, we declare our devotion once more to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Liberte, egalite, fraternite,” said Obama.
Both leaders said France and the United States owe their freedom to each other. President Hollande called it a great day for America and France, and spoke through an interpreter about historical bonds.
“We are always united by a common history. From Yorktown to the beaches of Normandy, as you said so rightly, each of our countries knows what it owes to the other — its freedom,” said Hollande.
Questions about Syria and nuclear negotiations with Iran dominated a more than hour-long news conference.
Calling the situation in Syria “horrendous,” Obama said they agreed on the importance of Syrians achieving a political solution and dealing with the humanitarian crisis.
“We are going to continue to commit to not just pressure the Assad regime but also to get countries like Russia and Iran to recognize that it is in nobody’s interest to see the continuing bloodshed and collapse that is taking place inside that country,” said Obama.
President Hollande stressed the importance of continued negotiations.
“The only purpose of this conference is to make political transition possible. It is not about discussing humanitarian measures only. It is all about making sure that a political change be possible which eventually will have to take place in Syria,” said Hollande.
The French leader blamed the Syrian regime for blocking progress. He echoed President Obama’s concern about Russia blocking a vote on a Syria resolution in the United Nations Security Council.
President Obama saluted Hollande for matching words with action in making France a global leader, mentioning Mali, Central African Republic, as well as joint pressure to remove chemical weapons from Syria, and the Iran nuclear negotiations.
Both leaders warned that P5+1 nations are determined to continue enforcing existing Iran sanctions while talks continue. Obama issued this warning to companies seeking to position themselves in Iran.
“Businesses may be exploring, are there some possibilities to get in sooner rather than later if and when there is an actual agreement to be had, but I can tell you that they do so at their own peril right now, because we will come down on them like a ton of bricks,” said Obama.
Hollande said U.S. support enabled the success of French operations in Mali against Islamist fighters.
“It was only successful because a decision was made by the international community. It was successful because Americans took part and Europeans helped as well as Americans who also gave their support and a president has now been elected in Mali and the Malian state has now found its authority again,” said Hollande.
Other topics included spillover effects in the Middle East from the Syrian conflict, Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations, trade and climate change.
On National Security Agency spying, President Obama said France and other longtime allies were the first to be consulted regarding changes being made to surveillance activities. Obama said the United States must be respectful of privacy concerns of French citizens.
President Hollande indicated that any differences on the issue have been resolved.
“Mutual trust has been restored, and that mutual trust must be based on respect for each other’s country but also based on protection of private life, of personal data,” said Hollande.
Before a state dinner late Tuesday, Hollande went to Arlington National Cemetery to honor fallen U.S. soldiers and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
He also presented six U.S. veterans with the French Legion of Honor to demonstrate, as he put it, that “France will never forget the spirit of sacrifice by American soldiers who left their homes to liberate France and Europe.”
President Obama announced Tuesday that he has accepted Hollande’s invitation to visit France for observances on June 6 marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy.