EVERYTHING went well with French President Francois Hollande's state visit to Washington last week, until a French reporter plucked up the courage to ask US President Barack Obama whether her country had now replaced Britain as Uncle Sam's best European buddy.
Mr Obama did what every agile politician does with a touchy question: He transformed it into a joke. "I have two daughters, and they are both gorgeous and wonderful and I would never choose between them," he retorted, to roars of laughter.
Yet the question deserves a serious answer. For the budding alliance between the United States and France represents a key strategic realignment of global significance. It is also likely to be enduring; the only lingering doubt is whether it will ultimately satisfy the considerably different security needs of France and the US.
The Americans have tried for decades to get closer to France and were invariably rebuffed with a hostility which, by now, remains the stuff of legends.
A partial explanation for France's behaviour is the peculiar mix of both inferiority and superiority complexes which most Europeans have about Americans: They see the US as a brash nation which inexplicably always seems to do better than the "old continent".
Like many Europeans, France's political establishment also tended to resent Washington's frequent claims that the US stands for "higher" principles in international affairs.
When US president Woodrow Wilson published at the end of World War I a list of 14 "points" supposed to ensure global peace, the then French prime minister Georges Clemenceau famously enquired why "if God needed only 10 commandments, does the US president need 14".
Resentment of influence
BUT the particularly intense nature of the French resentment about the US is due to the fact that its rise as a global power coincided with France's decline and, unlike Britain which was able to persuade itself it would continue to exercise influence by riding on the US coat-tails, the French enjoyed no such luxury.
The decline of the French language as a medium of global communication, the triumph of the market economy on "Anglo-Saxon principles" as Paris put it, and the growing international tendency to regard cuisine as merely the management of cooked commodities rather than, as seen from France, a higher expression of civilisation, were only some of the negative developments for which the US was blamed.
Standing up to the Americans became in France not just a moral duty but also a matter of national survival. France's lingering suspicions of Britain are largely due to a perception that the British would always act as America's agents.
And the creation of the European Union, to the French, was as much about keeping Germany under control as it was about keeping the Americans out of Europe.
Nor are these anti-American instincts outdated. One of the biggest accusations against Mr Nicolas Sarkozy, who served as French president until 2012, was that he was "too American".
And it is by now largely forgotten that Mr Hollande, the current French leader, promised during his electoral campaign to "re-examine" his predecessors' decision to bring French troops into the integrated command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the US-led military alliance in Europe.
Throwing jibes at the Americans remains a good electoral ploy in France.
STILL, outright hostility towards the Americans is only part of the story, for the ties of friendship between France and the US are just as historical in nature.
France supported America's fight for independence from Britain. The Statue of Liberty in New York, that iconic symbol of America's essence, is a gift from the people of France.
And today, the most profitable European market for McDonald's hamburgers is France: The land of sophisticated gastronomy is also a great supporter of fast food. Any French politician who wishes to highlight the positive in Franco-American relations has a large menu to choose from.
Today's generation of French politicians has finally concluded that baiting the US is not only a silly game long overtaken by history, but also a counter-productive one, for it runs against French national interests.
France's key strategic objectives are to maintain the country's global presence, uphold the European Union and ensure security around Europe's frontiers; all these can be accomplished only by working with, rather than against, the US.
Mr Hollande is the first French leader in a century who worries not so much about the United States' overbearing influence but more about its weakness, about the propensity of the Obama administration to shy away from international engagements.
France's growing role
MORE than a decade ago, the US led Nato and other coalition partners in Afghanistan, and also a coalition of countries into Iraq, which the French strongly opposed.
Yet today, it is the French who are leading military interventions in Libya, Mali and now the Central African Republic. It was France that demanded military action against Syria last year, and it was also France which insisted on hardening the West's negotiating position with Iran, in an effort to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons.
US diplomats are not always enamoured of this new French activism: France's decision to veto the signature of the first draft agreement with Iran last November irked Washington.
Still, the Americans are grateful for the fact that France is now shouldering the biggest burden of preventing global terrorist organisations from establishing a foothold in Africa by dispatching French troops to countries on the verge of collapse.
Nor did it escape Mr Obama's attention that, while the British Parliament voted against the use of any troops in a potential military operation against Syria last year, the French military remained poised for action alongside the Americans.
Does this mean that France is about to supplant Britain as the United States' closest European ally, as "a bright light in a dimming strategic Europe", as a recent report from the influential Centre for Strategic and International Studies put it? Perhaps, although not yet.
To start with, the French suffer from the same problem as the British: a mismatch between their aspirations to remain global players and their readiness to pay for this privilege.
French military spending is now lower than that of Britain, and public expenditure cuts announced by President Hollande recently will bite even deeper into military capabilities. So, although in proportional terms the French deployments to Africa are similar in size to the US deployments in Afghanistan, France is already straining itself to maintain this pace of military operations.
Another problem for France is that its history of hostility towards the US cannot be erased overnight. France remains outside the so-called Five Eyes intelligence agreement which allows Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand to share with the US in the huge effort of intelligence collection around the world.
The French have little hope of joining this exclusive English-speaking club; during Mr Hollande's state visit to Washington, Mr Obama rejected even an informal agreement for the two countries not to conduct spying activities on each other.
Varying strategic concerns
ULTIMATELY, however, the biggest snag is that France and the US seek to derive very different advantages from their relationship. The French hope to retain the US as a major security player in Europe, while the Americans want to see France increase Europe's capabilities to defend itself without the Americans.
The French view their involvement in Africa as a permanent feature and an objective in itself, while the US treats the African continent as a temporary strategic irritation. And, while China remains Washington's key strategic challenge, for the French, China is seen merely as a complicating factor in a world which should still revolve around the Atlantic area.
None of these contradictions mean that the new friendship between the US and France is of negligible importance: It remains one of the most significant strategic developments, allowing for faster decisions in international organisations, and better cooperation in handling global crises.
But, if the US wants to reform its European alliance, it should encourage not only special bilateral relationships with Britain and France, but also closer military ties between Britain and France in Europe.
And guess who is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to this European cooperation? Well, none other than the US military, which bans some British technology developed in cooperation with the Americans from being transferred to the French.
Not that anyone mentioned this inconvenient detail during the grand dinner which Mr Obama laid out for Mr Hollande in the White House.
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Background story Today's generation of French politicians has finally concluded that baiting the US is not only a silly game long overtaken by history, but also a counter-productive one, for it runs against French national interests. France's key strategic objectives are to maintain the country's global presence, uphold the EU and ensure security around Europe's frontiers; all these can be accomplished only by working with, rather than against, the US