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News Analysis: Hollande's baptism of fire in foreign policy

The ongoing French military intervention in Mali has put French President Francois Hollande in the spotlight, providing a sound opportunity for the first Socialist head of state since 1995 to stamp his authority in the diplomatic arena.

Elected last May, the self-styled "normal" president vowed to break with his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's "bling-bling" style.

Initially seen by some politicians as a fresher in foreign relations, Hollande said he was neither fighting for France's influence in the world nor for its own interests, but in the name of values and principles of "freedom and democracy."

Despite a shining educational background, the 58-year-old president has never held a national-level government post - a fact that has raised questions over his ability to flex France's diplomatic muscles and achieve foreign policy successes as his predecessor.

After his first eight months at the Elysee Palace marked by series of diplomatic moves, Hollande said he would focus in 2013 "on the national field" with one visit to the country's regions per week on average "to reflect, persuade, explain and make other decisions."

However, the outbreak of Mali crisis will no doubt announced the challenges in foreign policies faced by the French president has just begun in the New Year.

Challenge in Mali

In contrast to a superactive Sarkozy who scored foreign policy successes in Libya with a campaign to oust former leader Muammar Gaddafi, Hollande was initially criticised as being indecisive, even compromising in Mali.

But after giving the go-ahead for the French military to intervene in Mali last Friday, the operation has helped him establish a new image as a brave, decisive leader.

To Hollande, Malian conflict and growing terrorist menace against French expatriates. The president supported a UN-backed military operation to end the crisis in northern Mali, as he believed that Islamists' threats to harm France's interests and nationals is a "way that will not weigh (on the country's commitments in Mali)."

The sudden military intervention in Mali, which took only half a day to set in motion, is seen as a political crucible for Hollande in ruling foreign relation.

Hollande has so far sent 2,500 troops to stop Islamist rebels from moving to the south of Mali. Now countries of the west Africa's regional bloc ECOWAS are preparing to deploy troops in Mali with the United States and European Union ready to provide logistic support.

No doubt, the Mali intervention will be a real test for Hollande who wants to show the world his capability and confidence in handing foreign relations.

Audacious Debut

Right from the start of his term, Hollande was pushed into the deep end. Days after taking over from Sarkozy, Hollande got down to work with diplomatic meetings in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S President Barack Obama at the G8 and NATO summit.

Hollande claimed victory after G8 backed his calls for more economic stimulus in Europe with the opening line of the summit communique reading: "Our imperative is to promote growth and jobs."

A month later, European leaders signed a growth and jobs pact aiming to pump 120 billion euros (157 billion U.S. dollars) into the region's stalled economy. In a NATO summit in Chicago, Hollande said he intended to keep his election promise of withdrawing French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, two years ahead of the alliance's plan to pull out forces in 2014, despite the expected antagonism from France's NATO allies.

Hollande later announced only non-combat troops were to stay in the country till mid-2013 to support local authorities in civilian fields including health, education and agriculture.

"We can say Hollande successfully entered the international scene because he did take any wrong step. He was relaxed, jovial and confident... perhaps a little too sure of himself," Alain Duhamel, a political analyst, said on RTL radio.

Foreign Policy Continuity and Independence

Hollande's policies towards Syria closely followed his predecessor's, strongly against the Assad's administration.

During his first appearance in the UN's General Assembly in September 2012, Hollande widely criticized inaction over Syria. Breaking ranks with his European partners, he was was the first to recognize Syria's opposition coalition as the representative of its people.

France was also one of the 138 nations that voted "yes" at the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's status at the United Nations to "non-member state" from "entity."

Hollande's policy to back Palestine at the UN won applause from the left to right in France.

Meanwhile, Hollande has looked to breathe new life into diplomatic ties with former French colonies in Africa with a conciliatory approach.

In his first official visit to Algeria, Hollande admitted French 132-year colonization of Algeria had been "brutal and unfair". The Socialist president campaigned for new political relations, with a distinct change of tone compared to Sarkozy's.

Attending a gathering of French-speaking African nations, the French leader said he wanted to reshape bilateral links to promote democracy and partnership.

In comparison, five years ago, former president Sarkozy said the African man had "not yet entered history" and ignited widespread outrage.

"I am not giving a speech to erase a precedent, I am giving a speech to write a new page with Africa, because France and Africa have historical ties," Hollande had said in an interview.

"Times have changed, We are defining a new policy. France wants to respect its counterparts at the same time as it tells them," he noted.

[Source: Xinhua, Paris, 16Jan13]

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