PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande faces a diplomatic test three days into his term when he discusses an early exit for French troops in Afghanistan with U.S. 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 United States 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 war in Afghanistan 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 Islamist movements sweeping elections across the Arab world time to make good on democratic promises.
U.S. HOPES, NATO MISGIVINGS
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 U.S. meetings.
Helping him through the transition, Hollande has appointed sinophile 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. It would need to negotiate authorisations from Uzbekistan and Pakistan for road passages as well as agreements to hire planes large enough to carry such loads.
Preliminary U.S. estimates of pullout costs for France are in the region of $150 million, the man tipped to be defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, told Reuters.
NATO allies have not given up trying to force Hollande to back down. Obama's administration sent a delegation led by assistant undersecretary for European Affairs Philip Gordon to meet Hollande's team to discuss NATO on May 11.
"Let him study the issues, put his cabinet together. We'll have a chance in Paris to talk about some of these issues," Gordon told the foreign relations committee before flying to Paris. "We're confident France is committed to NATO and committed to Afghanistan."
Merkel, whose country has the third-largest troop contingent in Afghanistan, said on May 10 that NATO allies had joined the war at the same time and should leave together.
"In the year running up to the election the last thing they(Germans) want is to be maintaining an unpopular presence in Afghanistan when even France is withdrawing," said Clara O'Donnell at the Brookings Institution.
Hollande has also expressed reservations about France's 2008 decision under Sarkozy to rejoin NATO's integrated military command, from which Charles de Gaulle withdrew France in 1966.
Le Drian said France would seek reassurances on existing demands for a greater say in NATO. The two key, and outstanding, demands were that Paris be given a bigger say as a result of its decision to rejoin the military command structure and that the move would facilitate work on a European defence entity.
"Afghanistan and review of the anti-missile defence system shield will be the priority," said a diplomatic source close to the new president.
The violence in Syria and a new round of Iran nuclear talks beginning on May 23 in Baghdad will also provide Hollande with a chance to outline his views on those issues.
Hollande has said he would back military intervention in Syria if there was a United Nations Security Council mandate and supports tougher sanctions on Iran to avoid military escalation.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom)
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