President George W. Bush and his French counterpart bonded over burgers last Saturday, after President Nicolas Sarkozy dropped by the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. There was no mistaking the sharp contrast in atmospherics in comparison to the mutual disdain that Presidents Bush and Jacques Chirac reserved for one another. But while hopes are up for a less fraught relationship between Paris and Washington, the feel-good manner in which the two men have agreed to disagree on international affairs may not prevent those differences from sparking new trans-Atlantic tensions when it comes to the crunch.
When Sarkozy rolled up to Chez Bush 45 minutes late a tardiness fashionable in France, but possibly rude in New England he was without his wife Cécilia, who bowed out of the informal lunch invitation due to a sore throat. Still, here was a French president who has dedicated himself to repairing the sour atmosphere between his predecessor and the White House, presenting himself as a partner with whom the U.S. can deal in greater confidence. Even though Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war reflected the view of most world leaders including Sarkozy that opposition made France a whipping boy for much of the U.S. media. And the fact that Chirac's warnings were vindicated by events in Iraq in no way endeared him to Bush.
Sarkozy's desire to reach out to Bush may have been one reason he chose to vacation in Wolfesboro, New Hampshire, just an hour's drive from the Bush family compound. "There was no political purpose to this meeting, which became possible because President Sarkozy is vacationing not far from the Bush home," says Elysée spokesman David Martinon. "The idea was for the two men to meet informally, in a friendly manner, and discuss international topics, and manage their disagreements and contradictions in a calm and cordial way."
Indeed, it soon became clear that the achievement of the meeting was to prove the two men could differ without undermining bilateral relations. "Do we agree on everything? No," Sarkozy told the press contingent outside the Bush estate Saturday. "Even within families there are disagreements, but we are still the same family." Concurred Bush: "We have had disagreements, on Iraq in particular. But I've never allowed disagreements to not find other ways to work together."
For Dominique Moïsi, senior adviser at the French Institute on International Relations, the statements by Bush and Sarkozy show that their meeting "was much ado about nothing". Despite the warm glow produced by a friendly cookout, Moïsi says the encounter won't have changed the differences between the two sides on such key issues as Iran, Iraq, Turkish membership to the European Union, global warming, or regulation of the economy. Sarkozy may be talking the talk more like Tony Blair, but when it comes to walking the walk, he'll look a lot more like Chirac.
"It's good that the two presidents are friendly and have confidence in one another, but they'll be defending narrow national interests in the end," Moïsi comments noting that a happy meal in Kennebunkport isn't necessarily the recipe for diplomatic miracles. "Putin had a great visit there, but that has scarcely made U.S.-Russian ties better."
Moïsi notes that the Bush-Sarkozy embrace comes at a moment of what he terms "a changed balance of power" an embattled, weakened Bush seeking a bit of positive PR via an emphatic validation from his French peer, while the popular Sarkozy continues to impress the French with his high-profile displays of diplomatic skill by making nice with the American superpower.
The French public that elected Sarkozy certainly remain cool to the current White House: Polls after the Kennebunkport weenie roast showed 40% of French respondents saying they wanted Franco-American relations to remain as they are, while a further 26% said they'd like Paris to seek further distance from Washington.
"It would really be paradoxical if you had Great Britain taking its distance and France aligning itself [with the U.S.] at the same moment that President Bush has been discredited," fumed Pierre Moscovici, a French Socialist Party official who oversees international affairs. Moscovici warns that Sarkozy is betting on the wrong political horse. "George Bush isn't America," Moscovici told the weekly Journal du Dimanche. "He's a man who is totally rejected today, whose at the end of his mandate a lame duck and who shares power with a Democratic Congress. It would be a grave error to demonstrate ostensible friendship, and open complicity."
Moïsi disagrees, suggesting the Sarkozy-Bush lunch was simply a photo op for domestic consumption on both sides of the Atlantic. "For the U.S. public, this was viewed as the popular new French president coming to call on the unpopular out-going American president," he says. "To the French, it was mainly became a lunch Cécilia wound up not going to."