Having defeated the Republicans and made nuclear peace with the Russians, President Barack Obama plans to resolve another great spat this week.
He will reach out, finally, to President Nicolas Sarkozy after more than 12 months of scarcely disguised froideur between the French and American leaders.
Eight other European leaders have been invited to the White House before President Sarkozy, who is said to be too excitable and too unpredictable for Mr Obama’s taste. The French president, jealous at being upstaged by another, young and energetic world leader, has made a series of barbed or patronising remarks about President Obama.
In particular, President Sarkozy once liked to compare the self-proclaimed success of his own pell-mell reforms with the alleged caution and slowness of President Obama’s first year in office. Irony of ironies, the French presidential visit, often postponed, is happening today and tomorrow when the roles of the two men have been reversed.
President Obama is on the crest of a wave after pushing health care reform through Congress and agreeing a nuclear disarmament deal with Russia. President Sarkozy is in the political dumps – including an all time low opinion poll rating of 30 per cent yesterday – after a humiliating defeat by the Left in the French regional elections last weekend.
Mr Sarkozy needs the American trip to be a success - and needs to be seen to get along with Mr Obama - as a first step towards rebuilding his shattered aura of invincibility in France. President Obama appears to be ready to oblige him.
President Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, have been invited to a cosy dinner in the White House tonight with the American first couple. If the weather permits, the visit will end with an elebarate joint press conference by the two presidents in the White House rose garden on Tuesday.
On most issues – such as Iran or Israel-Palestine – they see more or less eye to eye or will agree to differ. President Obama would like France to increase its front-line contribution to the war in Afghanistan. This would be deeply unpopular in France and is therefore beyond a weakened President Sarkozy’s power to deliver.
President Sarkozy would like the US to move further and faster on climate change but can hardly press the issue after dropping his own plans for a “carbon” tax.
The history of the awkward Obama-Sarkozy relationship began even before the American leader was elected in November 2008. As part of his campaign to denigrate the legacy of his predecessor and former mentor, Jacques Chirac, Mr Sarkozy reached out to the lame duck President George W. Bush. He even implicitly criticised Mr Chirac’s decision to oppose the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The French leader therefore found himself less than popular with the new Democratic team which occupied the White House in January last year. He was furious when President Obama refused his invitation to lunch at the Elysee(acute on middle e) Palace after the commemoration of the D-Day landings in Normandy last June.
“This was unprecedented and spoke volumes,” said one diplomatic source in France. “Obama couldn’t abide Sarkozy’s style and what saw as his child-like need to be always seen next to him.”
Over the next few months, President Sarkozy appeared to go out of his way to present himself as a more radical, and succesful, leader than Mr Obama. Criticised for launching a half-dozen, incomplete reforms, Mr Sarkozy said in December: “I see that Mr Obama, for whom I have great esteem, and even great friendship, has placed all his bets on one reform. That has not made things easier for him.”
In November, Mr Sarkozy pointed out that Mr Obama has already “lost three elections” since taking office. He bragged that his government had faced only one mid-term test, the European elections, and “we were the winners”.
The former French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, suggests that the difficulties between the two men are partly personal but partly driven by Mr Obama’s lack of interest in Europe.
“Obama has no reason to feel close to Sarkozy,” he said. “For one thing, he cosied up to George W. Bush for ideological reasons. But secondly Obama does not regard France, or Europe, as a priority.”Reuse content