Sarkozy and Obama Pursuing a Shared Policy Agenda

Written by Charles Kolb and Ioanna Kohler

Can American president Barack Obama and French president Nicolas Sarkozy strengthen the ties between our two great nations? We think so and urge them to make rapprochement a high foreign-policy priority when they meet in Washington on March 30.

Along with the Free City of Ragusa (now called Dubrovnik), and Morocco, France was among the first sovereign states to recognize American independence in 1776. France helped by secretly providing much-needed weapons and supplies as the British colonies rebelled. For nearly 250 years, France and the United States have been close allies and partners -- and only occasionally adversaries. De Gaulle and NATO; Chirac and Iraq come to mind.

But generally, there has been solid collaboration between our leaders who did not always share ideological or political views. Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, without prompting and without a quid-pro-quo, gave conservative Republican president Ronald Reagan vital intelligence from a KGB defector being "run" by French intelligence about Soviet theft of American scientific know-how.

President Obama has emphasized the importance of repairing and restoring America's international image, and President Sarkozy seeks a more global role, especially in diplomatic and economic crises. These two leaders' temperaments, predilections, and challenges make them likely allies with common aspirations.

Many Americans cheered when the energetic, pro-American Sarkozy succeeded Jacques Chirac. They were stunned to learn that Sarkozy loved American pop culture -- including Westerns and Elvis Presley -- and vacationed in New England. The French gave candidate Obama a hero's welcome to Paris months before the 2008 U.S. election. Sarkozy's physical embrace of Obama conveyed warm support and a welcome to the international arena.

The George W. Bush administration's missteps -- "Freedom Fries" and a last-minute, January 17, 2009, tariff on Roquefort cheese -- obscured the serious mutual interests of both countries. These interests go beyond membership on the U. N. Security Council, the reintegrated NATO military command structure championed by Sarkozy, and in the various annual economic summits. At a more "granular" level, French and American citizens and their leaders share similar concerns, policy problems, and future goals that suggest benefits from a concerted effort to learn from each other.

A potential common working agenda might include:

  • nuclear power - France obtains over 70% of its domestic energy from nuclear power. The comparable U.S. figure is 20%. President Obama wants more U.S. nuclear power plants.The U.S. can learn from France in building new nuclear-energy sources and in applying better nuclear-waste disposal and recycling technology.
  • health care reform - the United States outspends the rest of the world but experiences poor outcomes in longevity, income mortality, and obesity, and makes inadequate use of information technology. By contrast, France -- whose health care system has been ranked # 1 by the World Health Organization -- spends far less (3,449 per capita versus6,714 in the U.S.) and has a much healthier population that lives longer. The French enjoy basically free universal health care, whereas 47 million Americans lack health insurance.
  • workforce and aging - France and the United States are, demographically, aging societies; both need to rethink retirement policies. The U. S. is relatively better off because of higher immigration levels but faces enormous future budget deficits unless it reforms its Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid programs.
  • early education - through its state-funded (and therefore free) école maternelle and crèche system, France has been a world leader in championing the needs of young children while encouraging women to remain in the workforce. By contrast, the U.S. is, embarrassingly, near the bottom of OECD countries in providing quality early education to its youngest citizens. President Obama supports universal pre-kindergarten. French public expenditure for early education and care represents 1% of the country's GDP -- versus 0.5% in the United States -- and includes high-quality programs that are also economically cost-effective investments.
  • access to higher education - both countries have higher education systems that train outstanding elites. Access has been a focus in the U.S., but the U.S. system is slipping due to the mounting costs, rapidly increasing tuition, and growing concerns about completion rates and quality. France, by contrast, has a more affordable system but has not "democratized" its higher education to large numbers of its citizens, especially its minorities. Color-blind admissions, such as the "percentage plans" implemented at the public university systems of California and Texas, have sparked growing interest in France where egalitarianism is highly valued and policy cannot consider racial factors as in the U.S.
  • immigration - both countries face similar challenges in integrating minority populations into their economic and cultural mainstream. France experiences serious difficulties with its second-generation northern African immigrant population that has large numbers of unemployed youth, and has drastically toughened immigration policy. The U.S. still cannot control its borders and has not yet lifted the economic and educational well-being of its Hispanic and African-American minorities.
  • capital markets and economic reform - as developed, capitalist market economies, both countries are experiencing a credit crunch and asset deflation associated with a burst global asset bubble. Monetary, fiscal, and regulatory responses must be timely and coordinated. Both countries should play leadership roles with other developed countries.

With younger leadership and serious pressing challenges, our countries can pursue a common agenda based on mutual interests and experiences that will reward both nations and their leaders. Globalization has shortened time horizons, created new challenges, and brought new players to the world's stage. It affords us opportunities to build upon and strengthen bonds that, although perhaps a little frayed in recent years, have served our two countries well.

Charles Kolb is president of the nonpartisan, business-led Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C., that also helped develop the Marshall Plan. He served in the George H.W. Bush White House as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. Ioanna Kohler is director of policy programs at the French-American Foundation in New York where she leads an effort to examine equal opportunity practices in France and the United States.