President Bush might well want to say, Vive la différence! The difference, U.S. officials have said, comes courtesy of his guest and dinner companion on Tuesday night, French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The recently elected French leader started a two-day summit with Bush on Tuesday, telling an audience of CEOs at his first stop in Washington that "we love America" and "we shall be faithful friends and allies."
Sarkozy's effusively pro-U.S. remarks are part of a well-established pattern for this avowed friend of America, but it comes in marked contrast to the sometimes surly disagreements over the war in Iraq and other issues that divided the Bush administration and Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
Flanked by several of his cabinet ministers, Sarkozy acknowledged the Iraq dispute upfront—aides have said that he, like Chirac, would neither have endorsed the U.S.-led invasion nor sent peacekeeping troops afterward—but said he "never understood quite why we had to fight with the United States."
Sarkozy, 52, is a fan of Ernest Hemingway and Steve McQueen; this summer he chose to vacation at a lake in New Hampshire—a highly unusual gesture for a French president. And despite angst by the French left and by many commentators that he is attempting to align himself too closely with the Bush administration, he has embraced the moniker "Sarkozy the American."
Sarkozy alluded to the split in French attitudes over his warmth toward the United States.
"The French people love the American people. Well, the French elite—that's another story," he allowed.
His Washington visit has been choreographed to highlight the mending of strained ties, a repair job that started late in Chirac's term as the two countries more closely coordinated policies on Iran, Lebanon, and Syria.
He awarded French medals to American World War II veterans on Tuesday, and on Wednesday he will make a speech before a joint session of Congress and then meet with Bush again at Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington. That setting is intended to remind Americans of France's early, crucial support for American forces in the Revolutionary War.
"I want to follow in this tradition," Sarkozy said.
The Bush administration has been heartened by Sarkozy's tougher talk on Iran and backing for United Nations and European sanctions amid Tehran's refusal to suspend work on making nuclear fuel. On Tuesday, he called a future nuclear bomb in the possession of Iran's theocracy "unacceptable," adding, "I don't think that sanctions are useless."
Paris and Washington have also jointly pressured Damascus to allow Lebanon's struggling democracy to develop without interference. And Sarkozy has indicated that he would like to fully reintegrate France into the military command of NATO—a move that would overturn a tenet of modern Gaullism in France.
At the same time, Sarkozy is likely to press Bush to move the United States closer to European positions on curbing climate-warming greenhouse gases and to accept French-favored steps to strengthen military coordination within the European Union—a topic that ignites suspicion among American conservatives.
The French president also told his business audience that he is committed to "major reforms" in France's taxation, pensions, and labor law to increase its competitiveness.
His American audience also got a taste of Sarkozy's personal style, described by some as frenetic. Said Sarkozy, "My passion—everything I do—is action."