Sarkozy's Visit: Stressing the Positive

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Chamussy / SIPA

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

"Rien" — French for "nothing," famously the final diary entry by Louis XVI on the morning of his overthrow on July 14, 1789 — is exactly what the French are expecting out of Tuesday's White House summit between President Nicolas Sarkozy and President George W. Bush. The visit is expected to largely serve as another exercise in atmospherics to showcase just how positive the U.S.-French relationship has become, despite nothing having substantially changed in policy terms since Jacques Chirac cleared out his desk.

Sarko l'Americain was a term promoted by Sarkozy's communications team and fed to the French media, knowing that the Bush Administration had portrayed Chirac as the anti-Christ, and that by simply appearing friendly and cooperative, Sarkozy could restore friendly ties with Washington. Also aware that the unpopular U.S. President could really use a pal and admirer in a place that his Administration had least come to expect one — the Elysée Palace — Sarkozy has stressed the positive and pointed out all the ways France and the U.S. can work together. That, and his media-hyped Kennebunkport summer cookout with the Bushes has delivered the message Sarkozy sought: that he's the young, dynamic and admiring anti-Chirac.

The reality of the relationship, however, may be closer to Sarkozy's own reminders that "even friends can disagree." He has noted, for example, that he still views Iraq as a mistake — he may have sent his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, there, but only to affirm that Paris is ready to help with reconstruction once the fighting is over and stability restored. Not much difference there with Chirac.

More is made of the fact that Sarkozy appears to be Bush's strongest European ally when it comes to tackling Iran's nuclear program. But on that issue, too, the Frenchman's tough talk obscures the larger fact that very little has actually changed: France is leading the effort to persuade Iran to end uranium enrichment through a combination of sanctions and negotiations, and calls the idea of U.S. military action against Iran "catastrophic."

The two men are in accord on Lebanon as well, but it was under Chirac that the French took a major role in helping the U.S. roll back Syrian influence there in the wake of the murder of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

On other issues, such as expanding the European Union to include some key U.S. allies, Sarkozy may be even more at odds with Bush than Chirac had been: Even more strongly than his predecessor, Sarkozy wants to shut the E.U. door to Turkey's membership, which is directly at odds with what Washington wants. Nor would Bush have much time for Sarko's complaints about the disparities in the dollar-euro exchange rate. Instead, expect the two men to emphasize their agreement (hardly new) on fighting the good fight in Afghanistan, gradual French reintegration within NATO, and doing something about thuggery in Darfur and Burma.

While the summit will achieve little in concrete terms, it will again thrust Sarkozy into the global diplomatic limelight, which he has sought throughout his brief presidency. Even the international press thrilled at the omnipresence of France’s young, dynamic can-do President, and Sarko could use some of that spin now. That's because France's economy is stalling, purchasing power is falling as oil and food prices soar, and a series of strikes over pension reform and job eliminations in the public sector are likely to make November a nightmarish month for the French. At least Sarkozy's return to the diplomatic Big Top will generate the kind of press attention capable of momentarily distracting the French public from the grim scene at home.