Sarkozy looks to improve relations with Obama
Deutsche Welle

Sarkozy looks to improve relations with Obama

Eight other European leaders were invited to the White House in Barack Obama’s presidency before Nicolas Sarkozy. Now he finally has an audience, but he can be forgiven for thinking French amour is not a big US priority.

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Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama are probably both looking forward to Tuesday’s brief liaison. The meeting, followed by an intimate dinner in the White House with only their wives present, promises to be a short event with little pressure on either side to let anything serious develop. When it is all over, the two will utter their goodbyes with a beneficent press conference in the White House’s Rose Garden.

Both will be glad for a little relief from the domestic grind. Sarkozy will find some respite from the negative publicity he is enduring at home. A disastrous round of regional elections two weeks ago saw the leftist opposition score huge victories against Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement. This led to a hasty re-shuffle of the cabinet and backtracking on a series of reforms. This is certainly one of the lowest points in Sarkozy’s three-year presidency.

Obama will come into the meeting elated, having finally freed himself from tense and angry health care debates with a decisive victory. Added to this, his announcement last Friday that the US has come to terms with Russia over a new nuclear disarmament treaty has given him an extra boost.

But while this promises to be a light meeting intended as a PR boost for both sides, Sarkozy will possibly be hoping for more than a simple show of friendship.

Airbus spat

But Philippe Moreau Defarges, senior fellow at the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), is not holding out grand expectations. “I don’t think this is a very important meeting. It is short and basically symbolic,” Defarges told Deutsche Welle. “They agree on all the main issues, and where they don’t agree they are not going to make much progress in a day.”

One of the diplomatic sticking points between the two countries is a huge US military contract to supply 179 tanker planes. France recently accused Washington of protectionism by apparently favoring Boeing over Europe’s Airbus. After angrily dropping out of the competition, Airbus’ parent company EADS has now resumed talks with the Pentagon on extending the deadline for bids for the 26-billion-euro ($35 billion) contract.

But while Sarkozy may carefully bring this point up with Obama, he will be aware that he is talking to the wrong man, as Josef Braml, research fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), says. “There won’t be much progress on Airbus,” Braml told Deutsche Welle. “For that, Obama is the wrong person to talk to. There is an awful lot of pressure from the US Congress on this issue. If Sarkozy wants substantive policy changes, he needs to talk to important committee chairmen on Capitol Hill rather than make symbolic gestures with the US president.”

Afghanistan and Iran

Another potential bone of contention is the military engagement in Afghanistan. But here again the dispute is well-worn and the two presidents will probably be resigned in advance to agree to disagree. Obama will push Sarkozy for more front-line troops, which the French president will be unable to offer in the face of massive public opposition at home.

Obama will understand, as he is under similar pressure. “There is an isolationist reflex in the US congress at the moment,” said Braml, “A feeling that money and troops should not be poured into Afghanistan – so Obama’s interests will at least be aligned with those of Congress on this point.”

Braml believes that the issue of Iran will be the measure of the success at Tuesday’s meeting, at least for Obama. The US president is keen to solidify the international community’s opposition to the recalcitrant Middle Eastern state. “A success for Obama would be if France agreed to harder sanctions against Iran,” said Braml. “And I think he’s likely to get that. When Merkel visited the US she gave some very clear indications that she supported stronger sanctions, now we are waiting for Sarkozy to do the same.”

Diplomacy is not a kindergarten

But it is the symbolic context of the meeting that perhaps carries most interest. Sarkozy came to power as a US-friendly president – on entering office, he implicitly criticized his predecessor Jacques Chirac for opposing the Iraq war by reaching out to George W. Bush. But diplomatic rumors hold that ideologically and personally, Obama is not nearly as close to Sarkozy as Bush was. There has been an awkward silence between the two countries since Obama’s election, with several high-profile tete-a-tetes with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Gordon Brown in between. Obama is also said to have slighted Sarkozy by failing to accept a lunch invitation at the Elysee Palace after the D-Day commemoration in Normandy last June.

Braml dismissed such gossip: “I think it does help diplomacy if leaders like each other, but they are too professional to let these things get in the way,” he said. “It’s not like in kindergarten, where one person likes one person, but then doesn’t like someone else. Interests are much more important.”

Braml points out that Sarkozy is an Americanophile at heart. “Sarkozy is the most American French president there has been in a long time,” he said. “You could see that from his election campaign, where he opposed the Gaullist tradition of simply attacking the US on everything. That was quite a brave move, and it was not particularly popular. Sarkozy strongly believes in the American market-driven economy.”

But Defarges thinks Sarkozy has been pushing this image of himself too hard for too long, and it hasn’t got him very far. “Sarkozy came into power with what was, in my opinion, a wrong idea – that he could revolutionize French-US relations. He cannot change the basic factors. France and the US have never been on good terms, and the main reason for this is that France is not on an equal footing with the US, and it would like to be.”

Even their current contrasting fortunes at home do not change anything. “Let’s say they were coming from a totally different perspective,” Defarges said. “Let’s say Obama’s health care reform had failed and Sarkozy had won his regional elections – it would not change very much. The problem is a structural one.”

Defarges spelled out the situation: “In US foreign policy, Britain comes first, then Germany and then France. I think Obama does get on with Sarkozy on a personal level, but he gets on with Merkel too. Sarkozy cannot change that. Foreign policy is a big, heavy boat that you can’t steer in a new direction quickly. If you want to bring it to a personal level, Sarkozy loves Obama and wants Obama to love him back, but Obama doesn’t care very much.”

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