CANNES, France — President Obama came, he saw, he insulted.
“Obama insults Sarkozy,” blared the headline on one French website, taking umbrage at Mr. Obama’s wayward remark at the G-20 summit here about the physical appearance of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Mr. Obama thought he was making a gentle joke about Mr. Sarkozy, host of the summit, when he congratulated Mr. Sarkozy and wife Carla Bruni on the birth of their baby daughter on Oct. 19. Instead, Mr. Obama caused a minor international incident.
“I want to make mention that this is our first meeting since the arrival of the newest Sarkozy, and so I want to congratulate Nicolas and Carla on the birth of Giulia,” Mr. Obama told reporters shortly after his arrival at the G-20, with Mr. Sarkozy at his side. “And I informed Nicolas on the way in that I am confident that Giulia inherited her mother’s looks rather than her father’s, which I think is an excellent thing.”
He added, “And so now we share one of the greatest challenges and blessings of life, and that is being fathers to our daughters.”
Mr. Sarkozy, who is said to be very conscious about his looks, did not appear greatly amused by the comment, and some observers who attended the meeting said Mr. Obama’s remark fell flat.
The French president, who has three sons from two previous marriages, later told reporters, “You see the great influence of Barack Obama. It’s been four years now he tells me to be a father of girls is fantastic, he has two. So I listened and followed his example.”
But Mr. Obama’s remarks, intended as a compliment for the French president’s glamorous wife, ended up in the eyes of some Frenchmen as tagging their leader as an ugly man. France took notice.
“The U.S. President’s picnic on the ‘physical’ of his French counterpart is only the latest episode of reports [which are] rather cool at best, at worst frankly tense,” said L’Observateur newspaper, which called the two leaders “the best enemies.”
Another French publication said Mr. Obama had chosen to compliment Mr. Sarkozy “in a way unique to say the least, before the cameras around the world.”
The French celebrity website Staragora said Mr. Obama’s comment was “risky” and “not very cool, for the French president [was] humiliated in public.”
“Barack Obama has openly and publicly ridiculed the physical [appearance of] Nicolas Sarkozy,” Staragora said, adding that Mr. Obama’s comments were delivered “without pity.”
Mr. Sarkozy’s comeback, the publication said, achieved the “breaking [of] the most powerful man in the world.”
But others in France took Mr. Obama’s comment as a nice gesture intended simply to congratulate their country’s leader on the rare event of becoming a parent again while in office.
The French news site France Soir called it “a dash of humor that did not seem to offend the French president.”
The publication added that, given the summit’s focus on preventing various European nations from defaulting on their debts, no doubt the two leaders weren’t laughing later “in addressing economic issues.”