President Obama and French President François Hollande said Tuesday that they had come closer to resolving concerns about the scope of U.S. electronic surveillance overseas, which had outraged citizens in France and the rest of Europe.
Their joint appearance in the East Room of the White House came during a two-day visit aimed at showing solidarity between the United States and France, its historic ally. The two leaders expressed support for each other on a wide range of issues, including Syria, Iran and transatlantic trade.
Addressing the French news media, Obama said that the United States is “committed to making sure that we are protecting and concerned about the privacy rights not just of Americans, not just of our own citizens, but of people around the world.” He added that such a commitment is “fairly unprecedented in terms of any country’s intelligence operations.”
Obama said that his administration is putting restrictions in place to prevent inappropriate surveillance of “ordinary citizens in France.”
“We are respectful of their privacy rights, and we are going to make sure that our rules are abiding by concerns about those privacy rights,” he said.
Hollande said that he and Obama had “clarified things” after disclosures of widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency, revelations that were leaked last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“We are making headway in this cooperation. Mutual trust has been restored,” Hollande said in French. “That mutual trust must be based on respect for each other’s country but also based on protection — protection of private life, of personal data, the fact that any individual, in spite of technological progress, can be sure that he’s not being spied on.”
Obama was asked by a French reporter whether the United States would enter into a “no spy” agreement with France. Under the “five eyes” agreement, the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand pledge to share intelligence and to generally avoid spying on one another, with narrow exceptions. France has long showed interest in joining the alliance.
“There’s no country where we have a no-spy agreement,” Obama said. “You know, we have, like every other country, an intelligence capability, and then we have a range of partnerships with all kinds of countries. And we’ve been in consultations with the French government to deepen those commitments.”
Obama acknowledged “enormous frustration” over the “crumbling” state of Syria but again ruled out direct U.S. military intervention.
He also defended his administration’s approach to talks on Iran’s nuclear program, arguing that the United States will maintain existing economic sanctions while six world powers negotiate a durable nuclear pact with Tehran.
But he warned that imposing new sanctions would risk scuttling an interim agreement with Iran, reached in Geneva in November, that freezes key parts of the nuclear program for six months in exchange for temporary relief from some sanctions.
Obama said he and Hollande agreed that talks in Vienna next week on Iran’s nuclear program “will be an opportunity for Iran to show” that its program is solely for peaceful purposes.
“We are absolutely united on our ultimate goal, which is preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said.
In response to a question, Obama said that “even during this interim agreement, we will fully enforce all applicable sanctions” against Iran. He said French businessmen who have visited Iran recently to explore opportunities should know that “they do so at their own peril right now, because we will come down on them like a ton of bricks” if they violate existing sanctions.
The two presidents met the media after Obama formally welcomed Hollande, 59, who arrived without his estranged partner after a public breakup over an affair. Hollande publicly invited Obama to attend the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in June, and the U.S. president announced his acceptance at the joint news conference.
Obama spoke a few words in French during the welcoming ceremony, observing at the outset that “bonjour” was largely the extent of his knowledge of the language. He said later: “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’ — to ‘liberté, egalité and fraternité.’ ”
Later at the news conference, a French reporter asked Obama if the country had surpassed Britain as the United States’ top European ally.
“I have two daughters. And they are both gorgeous and wonderful, and I would never choose between them,” Obama said, drawing laughs. “And that’s how I feel about my outstanding European partners. All of them are wonderful in their own ways.”
For his part, Hollande said: “We’re not trying to be anyone’s favorite.”
William Branigin contributed to this report.