Bush-Sarkozy: A Love Supreme?

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Certain things appear identical on both sides of the Atlantic these days: France and America seem to be friends again; warm relations and mutual esteem have replaced nearly five years of diplomatic disdain; and presidents George Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy may start having regular sleep-overs if they become any better friends. Beyond that, however, the views of Sarkozy's 26 hour courtship of Washington — and the Franco-American love-fest it provoked — differ in small but significant ways in the two countries.

In his speech to Congress, Sarkozy lavished praise on the innovation, industry, creativity, flexibility, and energy of America's society and economy, and made it clear he hopes to cultivate those values as part of his reformist drive in France. Sarkozy also expressed personal indebtedness to American sacrifice during both World Wars and in launching the Marshall Plan, almost as if he'd been a witness to them himself (he was born in 1955). He similarly reeled off a list of American pop culture icons that inspire lasting French admiration, including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John Wayne, and the Armstrong Sarkozy hailed for "fulfilling mankind's oldest dream." (It turned out he meant Neil's moonwalk, not Lance's record-setting seven Tour de France wins.)

If wooing his host was Sarkozy's main priority during his first official visit as president to the U.S., the message was lost on nobody back home. The leftist daily Libération headlined with Sarkozy's "French Kiss," while conservative rival Le Figaro noted "Sarkozy Hails Franco-American Friendship." Le Parisien similarly observed "Sarkozy Declares Love for the United States"; however, the newspaper acknowledged the remaining differences by beginning its story on his Washington triumph by using the notorious Bush boast "Mission Accomplished". Other French reports were more pointed on how Franco-American policy views often diverge beneath the new veneer of improved relations — something U.S media inadvertently noted. The Washington Post, for example, headlined "Sarkozy Backs Bush on Iran" — a notion that sounds good now, but which will become untenable if the White House seriously proposes military strikes that Sarkozy has previously termed "catastrophic." The New York Times underlined a conclusion that leaves many in France dumb-founded: Sarkozy's Congressional acclaim demonstrated, "France was forgiven for opposing the American-led war in Iraq."

"How credible is the view that France could be 'forgiven' for taking a principled stand on a war that turned out so catastrophic a majority of politicians and voters in the U.S. now oppose it?" asks Jacques Mistral, head of economic research at the French Institute on Foreign Relations, and former official at the French Embassy in Washington during the darkest days of the Franco-American Iraq spat. "Virtually everyone in France is happy to see friendly feelings and a positive atmosphere restored, but people are also aware that Iraq, Guantanamo, Iran, and most issues that still divide us were carefully ignored," during Sarkozy's trip.

Regardless, the impact of this trip is bound to be short-lived in both countries and rapidly replaced in France by headlines announcing the wave of strikes protesting reform and economic upheaval. Even before he left for Washington on Monday, Sarkozy made a stop in the Breton port of Le Guilvinec to meet with infuriated fishermen demanding aid to offset sky-rocketing fuel prices. (They got it, but not before raucous crowds left Sarkozy sputtering in fury while responding.) French college students took to the streets Thursday to protest already approved educational reforms, and have pledged to join Nov. 20 strikes by public sector workers angered by plans to eliminate nearly 23,000 state-funded jobs next year. France's transport unions will stage strikes Nov. 14 to resist plans to tighten their retirement schemes — hoping for the same crippling effects of their Oct. 18 walk-outs that brought much of the country to a standstill. With similar disruption expected for much of the remaining year, Sarkozy may soon learn that winning back hearts in America was far easier than winning minds in France.