PARIS LETTER: France’s leader seems to hero-worship the new US president but so far, his ardour appears to be unrequited
ONE COULD be forgiven for thinking that President Barack Obama is deliberately snubbing President Nicolas Sarkozy. Unrequited love exists in politics, too, and the American leader has repeatedly declined Sarkozy’s pleas for a rendezvous.
Sarkozy’s frustration will peak on Thursday, Friday and Saturday as he encounters Obama at the G20 and Nato summits. Now the Élysée says they’ll steal a few minutes to be alone “on the sidelines” of the Nato summit.
Le Figaro newspaper, which is to Sarkozy what Pravda was to the Soviet politburo, had prematurely announced that they would visit the beaches of Normandy together on April 3rd, en route from London to Strasbourg.
The White House though said the stop would be too complicated, then declined Sarkozy’s fall-back invitation to the Élysée.
Sarkozy will have to wait until the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings, on June 6th, to bask in the full glow of Obama’s undivided attention.
In its eagerness to promote the image of a close relationship between the two presidents, Le Figaro last week published a front-page photo-montage – the sort one sees in Third World dictatorships – of Obama and Sarkozy each clutching a phone while allegedly engaged in transatlantic consultations.
The French president has sought a one-on-one meeting ever since Obama’s election. Sarkozy’s communications adviser Franck Louvrier stayed up on election night, because Sarkozy was determined to be the first to congratulate him.
Louvrier fired off his missive just four minutes after John McCain admitted defeat, an hour before Gordon Brown and two hours before Angela Merkel. Alas, in his haste, Sarkozy left the “c” out of Barack in the hand-written greeting “cher Barak”.
At Sarkozy’s insistence, the November G20 summit was held in Washington, not Tokyo, because Sarkozy wanted to invite Obama. But Obama refused to attend and his staff rebuffed Sarkozy’s offer to fly to Chicago.
On January 26th, five days after his inauguration, Obama finally telephoned Sarkozy, at which time the Frenchman extended the ill-fated invitation for April 3rd.
Also in January, a rip-off of Shepard Fairey’s now iconic red, white and blue stencilled poster of Obama appeared mysteriously on Paris walls – with Sarkozy’s face instead of Obama’s. The posters are believed to have been hung by the youth group of Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Sarkozy’s hero-worship of Obama may be tinged with jealousy. More than one commentator wrote that after his eventful EU presidency, Sarkozy was loath to see Obama steal the limelight. “The world is big enough for the two of us,” Sarkozy has been quoted as saying.
When the two men met for an hour at the Élysée during Obama’s campaign last July, Sarkozy compared their immigrant backgrounds: “Sarkozy is not a common name in France and Obama is not a common name in the US,” Sarkozy said.
Asked whether there was anything about Sarkozy that he would like to copy, Obama ambiguously praised Sarkozy’s legendary energy, saying: “I’d like to ask him what he eats, what he takes.”
Sarkozy had boasted to Le Figaro that morning: “Obama? He’s my pal. I’m the only Frenchman who knows him.” (The two men had met once, briefly, in Washington in September 2006.)
US sources say Obama was shocked by Sarkozy’s attempt to create an image of intimacy that doesn’t exist.
In recent days, French newspapers have speculated that Obama remembers the way Sarkozy snuggled up to George W Bush, spending his first presidential summer holiday in New England and eating hot dogs with Bush in Kennebunkport.
To add insult to injury, in a letter revealed this month, Obama warmly greeted Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, saying: “I am certain that in the course of the next four years we will be able to work together in the spirit of peace and friendship to build a safer world.”
It was the sort of billet doux that Sarkozy hungers after.
The allusion to “peace” was interpreted as appreciation for Chirac’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which Obama voted against in the Senate.
The most charitable reading of Sarkozy’s courtship of Obama is that he dreams of making France the “privileged interlocutor” of the US. The strategy seems to have failed.
Obama refuses to play favourites among the “big three” European siblings – Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel.
As the Economist magazine noted, Obama did not once mention Europe in his inaugural address.
The former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine says Europe is simply not a priority for Obama, while Obama’s European affairs advisers may find Sarkozy erratic.
For all his declarations of affection, Sarkozy has ditched les anglo-saxons to side with Merkel and the president of the euro group, Jean-Claude Juncker, in refusing to produce the bigger European stimulus packages that Obama asks of them.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times