Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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 Monday, 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

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