Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as president of France two years ago was welcomed by many in London and Washington tired of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who looked on both America and Britain with a disdain he didn’t bother to conceal.
Sarkozy seemed different. His apparent love for America propelled him to Maine after only a few months in office to eat hot dogs and tool around in a speedboat with then-president George W. Bush. Whereas many French politicians refer to the “Anglo-Saxon” economic model in tones that suggest they might as well be speaking of some sort of plague, Sarkozy said France would learn from Britain as it sought to reform its economy. On a state visit to London last year, he said he wanted a new “Franco-British brotherhood.” And in March Sarkozy announced that France would rejoin NATO’s integrated military command—a move that Roland Hureaux, writing in the left-wing Marianne magazine, predicted would please those who hoped “Sarko the American” would “castrate France once and for all.”
Sarkozy’s much anticipated reforms have turned out to be little more than timid tweaks that arguably made a still over-regulated economy even worse. And now French nationalists such as Hureaux, who feared Sarkozy would sell France down the river to the British and the Americans, can take some comfort in his blunders and perceived snubs over recent months that have offended the very countries with which he promised to rebuild relations.
It started at a parliamentary lunch in April at which Sarkozy reportedly said American President Barack Obama was inexperienced and “not up to standard.” For good measure, he also described Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríquez Zapatero as dim-witted, and bragged that German Chancellor Angela Merkel followed his diplomatic lead.
It got worse last week when it emerged that the French government did not invite Queen Elizabeth II to commemorative ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings during the Second World War. Buckingham Palace said the Queen is “content” not to attend. The British media, on the other hand, were outraged. The only thing tabloid newspaper editors in Britain enjoy more than dwelling on Germany’s Nazi past is reminding their readers how quickly the French were defeated during the war.
“It is as though France can never forgive Britain for saving it,” wrote Steven Glover in the Daily Mail. A column by Peter Allen in the same newspaper bore the headline, “What did YOUR dad do in the war, Sarkozy?” and suggested that Sarkozy’s reluctance to invite the Queen could be explained by the wartime associations of his Hungarian father, and the Italian stepfather of his wife, Carla Bruni. Neither opposed the Nazi or Italian Fascist regimes during the war.
Only four days before the D-Day anniversary, Paris responded to the British uproar by issuing a formal invitation to Prince Charles. But a French government official had already noted that the commemorations would be “primarily a Franco-American ceremony.” While both Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be there, it seems clear that Sarkozy will be most interested in his American guest—Obama.
The two will have more to discuss than ruffled feathers. Despite the relief with which many French greeted the departure of George W. Bush from the White House, the election of Barack Obama has introduced a few unexpected strains in the French-American relationship. “Obama’s policies are not the Atlanticism that Sarkozy was expecting,” says Hall Gardner, a professor of international politics at the American University of Paris. “There’ve been several elements of disagreement between the two.”
Topping this list is Afghanistan. Since Sarkozy’s election, the number of French troops in Afghanistan has increased to 3,000. Many have moved out of Kabul and are engaged in a hot war northeast of the capital. Familiar slurs about French soldiers avoiding combat no longer hold water. But Obama wants an even larger contribution, and Sarkozy, mindful of public opposition to the war in France, is reluctant to give one. Another sore spot is Obama’s call for nuclear disarmament. “It’s seen as delegitimizing France’s nuclear deterrent,” says Gardner. Finally, there is the issue of Turkey’s membership in the European Union. The United States supports it; France is opposed.
Beyond specific policy disagreements, Gardner says Sarkozy may simply be annoyed by Obama’s glowing public image. “There’s a joke going around among the French elite that Obama is a messiah. They don’t see Obama as a messiah . . . the French want to bring a little reality on him.”
None of this means the United States and France are facing the prospect of a deep freeze such the one that followed the American invasion of Iraq. Sarkozy’s perceived pro-Americanism is genuine, Gardner says. The French and American militaries co-operate in Afghanistan, and the two countries will now work together more closely within NATO. Despite his loose and candid tongue, Sarkozy is probably the best friend of America Obama could hope for in a French president. He might do well to consider inviting Sarkozy back to the States for another barbecue.