Obama, Sarko all bon­homie but mon amie?

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Joe Curl

France may be Amer­ica’s old­est ally, but the pres­i­dents of the two coun­tries are not ex­actly the best of bud­dies.

When Pres­i­dent Obama vis­ited Paris in June, he de­clined a din­ner in­vi­ta­tion from French Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy, even though he had no evening plans and was stay­ing just a few doors down from the El­y­see Palace.

The brushoff fol­lowed a more sub­stan­tive snub­bing, when the French pres­i­dent turned down a U.S. re­quest to put more troops into Afghanista­n. Mr. Obama re­sponded by send­ing a let­ter to for­mer French Pres­i­dent Jac­ques Chirac ex­press­ing his de­sire to “work to­gether [. . . ] to build a safer world.”

The pe­tite but fiery Sarko was re­port­edly livid.

So when he ar­rived in the U.S. on March 29, Mr. Sarkozy went not to Wash­ing­ton but to New York, where he de­liv­ered a speech at Columbia Uni­ver­sity.

There, he mocked Mr. Obama’s re­cent health care re­form victory, say­ing “if you want me to be re­ally hon­est, when we see the U.S. de­bate on the health care re­form from Europe, it’s dif­fi­cult to be­lieve. [. . . ] Ex­cuse me, but we’ve solved this prob­lem more than 50 years ago.”

With the supreme dis­mis­sive­ness only a French­man can pull off, he added: “Wel­come to the club of states who don’t turn their back on the sick and the poor. [. . . ] If you come to France and some­thing hap­pens to you, you won’t be asked for your credit card be­fore you’re rushed to the hospi­tal.”

When Mr. Sarkozy fi­nally came to Wash­ing­ton, he stopped first at the Capi­tol, where he met with 2004 failed pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. John Kerry. There, he pledged to help en­act global taxes on coun­tries that re­sist steps to fight cli­mate change.

Left to his own de­vices for lunch, Mr. Sarkozy and his wife, for­mer model Carla Bruni, stopped by Ben’s Chili Bowl, ac­com­pa­nied by his two sons from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage. The French leader scarfed down a chili burger, while his wife gob­bled a hot dog with mus­tard and pick­les. The cou­ple, clearly fam­ished, also shared one of Ben’s fa­mous half-smokes.

With lunch fin­ished, it was fi­nally time to go to the White House to meet with the U.S. pres­i­dent. Af­ter a pri­vate meet­ing in the Oval Of­fice, the two re­paired to the East Room for a joint news con­fer­ence, where it was all hap­pi­ness and light.

Mr. Obama wel­comed “my dear friend” and pro­ceeded to call the French pres­i­dent by his first name eight times. “The fact that Ni­co­las went to Ben’s Chili Bowl for lunch, I think, shows his dis­crim­i­nat­ing palate,” he said to laugh­ter from Mr. Sarkozy. Mr. Obama, read­ing from notes, praised his coun­ter­part for his “leg­endary en­ergy” be­fore tick­ing off a se­ries of is­sues on which the two agree.

The French pres­i­dent, for his part, was de­fen­sive from the out­set. With his poll rat­ings at home at record lows of about 30 per­cent, Mr. Sarkozy went out of his way to dis­miss re­ports that he and Mr. Obama are on the outs — go­ing so far as to speak for Euro­pean leaders.

“I must say I’ve been quite amused — on the re­la­tions be­tween Euro­pean leaders and the pres­i­dent of the United States. I say I’m amused be­cause I’ve thought to my­self, well, when we speak to one an­other, peo­ple must be lis­ten­ing to our phone calls be­cause I have seen re­ports on con­ver­sa­tions and dis­cus­sions which in no way re­sem­ble any­thing that has ever taken place be­tween Barack Obama and my­self,” he said.

“I speak on be­half of [Ger­man] Chan­cel­lor [An­gela] Merkel, [Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter] Gor­don Brown, and other leaders,” he added.

Putting ru­mors to rest, he said: “I’ve also heard it said that Europe was less in­ter­ested in the United States. Well, for heaven’s sake, how many times do we have to come over to show that we are in­ter­ested? What would it mean if we were in­ter­ested? So, very frankly and very hon­estly on this, not only is it not an is­sue, not a prob­lem, but it’s great to be able to work un­der such con­di­tions.”

Mr. Sarkozy spoke without notes and of­ten at great length — so long that Mr. Obama some­times stood, un­smil­ing, clench­ing and un­clench­ing his jaw.

But even be­fore Mr. Sarkozy launched into his de­fense of his re­la­tion­ship with the U.S. pres­i­dent, Mr. Obama pre-empted him, of­fer­ing an an­swer to a ques­tion posed to Mr. Sarkozy by a U.S. re­porter. “Well, let me an­swer the sec­ond ques­tion, even though that was to Ni­co­las. I lis­ten to Ni­co­las all the time. I can’t stop lis­ten­ing to him,” he said to laugh­ter — and a brief smile from Mr. Sarkozy.

Un­like the Oba­mas in Paris, the Sarkozys ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to dine in the White House, join­ing the first cou­ple in the res­i­dence for a pri­vate din­ner. And the two leaders, per­haps the hatchet fi­nally buried, left the stage to­gether, with Mr. Obama’s arm draped around the shoul­der of his smil­ing French coun­ter­part.

Joseph Curl can be reached at [email protected]­ing­ton­times.com.

UNITED PRESS IN­TER­NA­TIONAL

We’re the best of bud­dies: Pres­i­dent Obama and French Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy shake hands fol­low­ing a joint press con­fer­ence at the White House in Wash­ing­ton on March 30.

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