It takes a lot to get President Bush to muster a few words of French. In fact, it takes the unprecedented occasion of hosting an effusively pro-American French leader—"Bienvenue à la Maison Blanche," said Bush in welcoming Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, to the White House last week. That utterance came from a man who once belittled a reporter for addressing a question en français to the previous French president—in France, no less.
Bush's two-day lovefest with Sarkozy will very likely stand out as a memorable symbolic turnaround—the oldest of friendships gone sour, then retrieved. "The French people love the American people; that is the truth and nothing but the truth," Sarkozy gushed. The 52-year-old fan of Ernest Hemingway and Steve McQueen declared his visit's purpose was no less than "to reconquer the heart of America."
The zeal to link the revived Franco-U.S. concord to the original one during America's Revolution, in which France's support proved crucial, was mutual. At a black-tie dinner at the White House, actors impersonated George Washington and his young aide, the French soldier and statesman Marquis de Lafayette. As the skit had it, that George W. invited Lafayette to his family home at Mount Vernon. The two present-day leaders repaired to that estate on the Potomac the following day. Script fulfilled.
The proximate cause of the past falling-out was, of course, Iraq, with France opposing the U.S.-led invasion and occupation as unwise. But the tension over Iraq was worsened by the belief of Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, that France and Europe should be counterweights to U.S. power in the world, as well as by Washington's own sense of French ingratitude to a country that had twice spilled the blood of its young on its behalf.
Franco-bashing became, briefly, de rigueur. On Capitol Hill, House cafeterias were ordered to strike the "french" in favor of "freedom" fries. The old name has since been restored.
French-U.S. ties began to mend even under Chirac. But with a new French leader willing to embrace the moniker "the American," the rapprochement has flourished. After last week, Bush might well want to shout, Vive la différence!