WASHINGTON (AP) -- French President Francois Hollande said Friday he would carry out his pledge to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan by year's end, two years earlier than the U.S. ally once planned. He made the declaration to President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
Speaking after the White House meeting, Hollande said he stands by a campaign promise to withdraw troops, but said France will keep supporting Afghanistan in a "different way." The war, more than a decade old, draws even less public support in France than in the United States.
Meeting for the first time, the leaders also agreed that managing the eurozone debt crisis is critical to global financial health. Obama said this weekend's gathering of economic powers at Camp David will promote both fiscal consolidation and a "strong growth agenda."
"President Hollande and I agree that this is an issue of extraordinary importance not only to the people of Europe but also to the world economy," Obama told reporters following the meeting.
The United States supports an expansion of growth or stimulus programs in combination with belt-tightening measures. Hollande, however, is on record wanting to go much further.
On Afghanistan, a compromise appeared likely that would see 3,300 French troops shift from combat roles earlier than once planned, but leave some French presence in Afghanistan in a different role.
"I reminded President Obama of the commitment that I made to the French people -- the withdrawal of combat troops between now and the end of 2012," Hollande told reporters as Obama sat beside him. "I also specified that there will still be support for Afghanistan. ... We will be able to respect our commitment while applying it differently."
Obama nodded but did not directly respond when Hollande described their conversation on Afghanistan.
"We agreed that even as we transition out of a combat phase in Afghanistan that it's important that we sustain our commitment to helping Afghans build security and continue down the path of development," Obama said.
Hollande, elected May 6, is insisting on rethinking a European austerity treaty. But he also is trying to convince Obama and other leaders at the Group of Eight economic summit that his position will not worsen the debt crisis.
Obama was taking the measure of the new French leader whose campaign promises run counter to U.S. policy on both economic issues and Afghanistan.
Hollande's visit marked the start of four days of international summitry that amount to a national security debut for a leader with little international experience.
He is trying to defend France's interests while building a relationship with Obama, widely popular in France but seen by some in Hollande's camp as too friendly with the recently ousted president, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy proudly bore the moniker "Sarko the American" for his U.S.-friendly attitude. He bulked up France's presence in Afghanistan and NATO and took a major role in the alliance-led air campaign that helped topple Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. He also staked out what some analysts called an even harder line against Iran's nuclear program than Washington's.
Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Moranes said last week he was "fully convinced" that Hollande will not withdraw troops early because "the responsibility of France in the Afghan commitment is above (Hollande's) personal opinion."
Hollande had already publicly eased his initial stance. His 60-point campaign platform, released months ago, said he was committed to an "immediate withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan: There will be no French troops in this country at the end of 2012." But two weeks ago, at a news conference, he tempered that stance by saying French "combat units" would be out by year's end.
Hollande's foreign policy advisers suggest French advisers, or trainers for Afghan forces, might remain after combat forces depart.
French troops have dug in, so getting out before the rest of NATO does won't be easy. France has some 900 vehicles, 1,400 industrial containers, plus Mirage fighters and helicopters in Afghanistan, according to French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard.
A senior U.S. official said the early combat exits of Dutch and Australian troops are the model for a probable agreement with France. In those cases trainers or other support forces are supplanting front-line combat forces. Such an agreement is likely to emerge from NATO discussions this weekend, the U.S official said.
Polls show most French, and many other Europeans, want their countries out of Afghanistan, as do Americans. Sensing the political winds, Sarkozy had prepared to break with NATO's in-together, out-together mindset and announced during the campaign that he'd pull out combat troops by the end of 2013, a year early.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.