Wednesday, August 22, 2007

ROAIX, France. — The French tend to be homebodies. They rather like to keep to themselves, and they prefer to spend their vacations in their country homes or in other parts of France. Even Frenchmen who live in villages have country cabins to which they repair in July and August for European-sized vacations.

Other Europeans like to vacation in France as well, and at this time of year the Mediterranean beaches of the Cote d’Azur and picturesque villages of sun-filled Provence are filled with Brits, Belgians, Dutch, Germans, Belgians and Scandinavians — indeed, anyone who likes wine and wants to escape the damp and mercurial summer weather of northern Europe.

The French tendency to stay at home, which has traditionally extended to their heads of state, makes the decision by newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy to vacation in Wolfeboro, N.H., doubly interesting. As someone who does not hail from the traditional French political elite, Mr. Sarkozy by his election in May has already broken the mold of French politics.

In his clear desire to set French-American relations on a new and better footing, Mr. Sarkozy is forging a new path. His desire has been an open secret ever since his visit last fall to Washington, where he delivered a speech on the virtues of American society. All of this is refreshing after the clodhopping performance of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, whose desire for France to rival the United States on the world stage tended to warp his judgment of international affairs.

It is fair to say, though, that Mr. Sarkozy’s first months in office have not been entirely smooth sailing, due to a series of mini-scandals and a fairly timid performance regarding much-needed French labor-market reforms. The Sarkozy family vacation was marred by a few dissonant notes. The French media grumbled that Mr. Sarkozy was again consorting with the rich, when he rented the lake-front estate of Microsoft executive Michael Appe. And they grumbled even more over the costs when he interrupted his vacation to return by personal jet to Paris for a day for the funeral of bishop of Paris.

Then there was the ill-mannered performance of his wife, Cecilia Sarkozy, who turned down an invitation from President Bush to join his family for a picnic in Kennebunkport, Maine, pleading a sore throat. Even if the spouse of a president is not responsible for affairs of state, surely common courtesy would dictate that one does not snub such an invitation. The French papers across the political spectrum were quick to point out that Mrs. Sarkozy could not have been all that ill, as she appeared in shorts and a T-shirt strolling around in public with friends in Wolfeboro the next day. One French newspaper even consulted a specialist to determine how long a sore throat would last.

And some papers noted that Mrs. Sarkozy’s absence would not have been as noticeable had she not recently played such a prominent part in the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor in Libya, where they were accused of infecting children with HIV. While French first ladies have traditionally been rather low-key, shadowy figures, Mrs. Sarkozy traveled twice to Libya in July, meeting with Muammar Qaddafi and the families of the children.

It recently came out that the terms for their release seem to have included a $405 million weapons deal between Libya and the European Aeronatic Defense and Space for anti-tank missiles. It is the first European deal since the European Union lifted the arms embargo on Libya three years ago. An agreement has now been reached between Mr. Sarkozy and the French Parliament for an independent investigation of the arms deal.

Focusing again on the big picture, it is important to note that U.S. relations with “old” and “new” Europe have become more complex. Three major countries of Western Europe now have leaders — Angela Merkel in Germany, Gordon Brown in Britain and Mr. Sarkozy in France — who are eager to improve relations with the United States while at the same time remaining committed to the European Union. This presents new challenges and opportunities for American trans-Atlantic policy, which needs to take advantage of the improved atmospherics and at the same time not lose sight of American interests.

For now, though, let us appreciate the fact that a French president chose this country for his first vacation in office. That is no small gesture.

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