Obama Gets Love from Sarkozy

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Barack Obama arrives at the Elysee Palace for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, July 25, 2008.

If the Paris meeting in March between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain resembled a warm embrace, Friday's hookup of Sarkozy and Barack Obama fell just short of hot love. After trading compliments and endearments during an hour-long press conference in the Elysée Palace, the pair wound their session down with Sarkozy coming as close as possible to endorsing Obama for the U.S. presidency without actually doing it.

"I wish Barack Obama luck — if it's him, France will be very happy," Sarkozy responded to a question asking whether his ebullient praise of Obama was an endorsement. Referring to his initial 2006 meeting with Obama in Washington while Sarkozy was preparing his run for the French presidency, the Frenchman recalled, "There were just the two of us in the room, and one became President. Now it's up to the other to do likewise."

Sure, Sarkozy hedged his bet a bit, qualifying his comments as not "meddling" in the decision of U.S. voters (some of whom have very little love of the French). He noted that if the White House were won by "another, France will be a friend to the United States" — a conciliatory move to McCain, his best friend from March. Yet Sarkozy's praise of Obama throughout the press conference made his admiration of the probable Democratic candidate more than obvious — including an apparent allusion to the older McCain. "We have the right to be interested in a candidate who is looking to the future, not backwards at the past," Sarkozy said of Obama's campaign.

The gathered international press corps should not have been too surprised by the virtual endorsement. On Friday morning, the conservative daily Le Figaro printed quotes from Sarkozy in which he boasts of having been the first European politician to meet and befriend Obama — and to predict the Illinois Senator's promising future. "Obama, he's my buddy," Le Figaro quoted Sarkozy as he referred to their 2006 meeting. "Contrary to my diplomatic advisers, I never thought Hillary Clinton had much of a chance. I always knew Obama would win the candidacy."

That enthusiasm for Obama resounded beyond the Elysée, where the Senator's car was briefly blocked by a multinational crowd of supporters who spilled into the street, chanting his name. The French press and public were infected with the same Obama-mania that rocked Germany the day before — and that indeed has followed the Democratic candidate throughout his tour overseas. Sarkozy's evident support of Obama, meanwhile, mirrored the demonstratively warm reception the American has enjoyed from leaders and publics during his trip — which may help combat accusations from McCain that he's a virtual stranger to the world of international diplomacy.

That kind of criticism may further be undermined by the manner in which Sarkozy described the converging views he and Obama exchanged during their tête-à-tête before meeting the press. The discussion ranged, they said, from Iraq to Iran, Afghanistan to Darfur, and issues like global warning to what Sarkozy called the "moralization of capitalism's financial markets." The men said they also agreed on the need to continue strengthening transatlantic relations and searching for multilateral solutions to global problems.

Meanwhile, both men urged their respective nations to move beyond the labels and stereotypes that often complicate relations. "One of the wonderful things about President Sarkozy's presidency has been that he's broken, he shattered, many of those stereotypes," Obama said of U.S. perceptions of Europeans who "don't want to get their hands dirty." Conversely, Obama noted, Europeans often defer to America in dire situations only to criticize their powerful ally once it has taken action. "I think for too long ... Europeans, I think, have seen Americans just as unilateral and militaristic and have tended to forget the extraordinary sacrifices that U.S. military but also U.S. taxpayers have made in helping to rebuild Europe."

Still, American public perceptions of France remain partially shaped by Paris' opposition to the Iraq war — meaning, as John Kerry painfully discovered, accusations of excessive association with the French can seriously handicap a candidate. For that reason, Obama was asked whether his mere five-hour stopover in Paris — and the absence of any public appearances that would have reproduced the rock-star welcome Berliners showed him Friday — was intended to avoid allegations that he'd become France's candidate.

"I don't know anyone who doesn't want to spend more time in Paris, but time just got too short," Obama responded. Then, taking up Sarkozy's remark that both men are the sons of immigrants who'd risen to the top of their respective societies, Obama noted there may be more similarities between the two nations anymore than differences. "I do think President Sarkozy's election indicates the degree to which the West is opening up to people of all walks of life," Obama said. In that manner, he noted, Sarkozy's own election was "the essence of the American dream." One virtual endorsement, it seems, deserves another.