Is Obama Cold To Europe's Warm Embrace?

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to meet President Obama in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Relations between the U.S. and France have improved under the new administration, and the policies of both countries on issues like Iran and the Middle East are surprisingly similar. However, there is a feeling in Paris that Obama has not taken advantage of the opportunity to create even closer ties between the U.S. and France, and Europe in general.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy is on an official visit to the U.S. this week. He arrives in New York tomorrow morning and will meet with President Obama in Washington on Tuesday. After years of quarrels, France and America now consult each other and act together on a host of important global issues - yet, something is still missing, at least from the French perspective. Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: President and Michelle Obama visited France twice last year and both times, Sarkozy rolled out the red carpet for them.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BEARDSLEY: While Mr. Obama seemed plenty happy to plunge into the crowds and shake hands with regular French people, he didn't seem keen on spending a lot of personal time with Sarkozy. Last June, the Obamas declined an official dinner invitation from Sarkozy and his wife, Italian model Carla Bruni, preferring to enjoy a meal alone with their daughters. Mr. Obama brushed it off, saying that good allies didn't necessarily need to have long dinners, but here it was perceived as a slight.

Ms. NICOLE BACHERON (France-U.S. Specialist): I would suspect that Nicolas Sarkozy is a bit disappointed that the overall tone is not warmer.

BEARDSLEY: That's France-U.S. specialist Nicole Bacheron(ph). She says it's not just the French who feel Mr. Obama's coolness. Germany was stunned when she didn't show up for the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall last November.

Ms. BACHERON: I sense that here in Europe there is the feeling that Barack Obama is not really connected to the old continent, but his interests are more in Asia, in Africa. And Europe is a good ally, is a necessary ally, but there is no warmth or affection there.

BEARDSLEY: When Monsieurs Sarkozy and Obama meet Tuesday, the only prickly topic might be the Pentagon's handling of a contract to buy Air Force refueling tankers. Europe is accusing the U.S. of protectionism in favoring a Boeing bid over that of Airbus. Aside from that, the French and American presidents are likely to see eye-to-eye on all the other big ticket items: Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan.

There's no doubt America and France are close diplomatically, but what does it really mean, asks Dominique Moize(ph), analyst with the French Institute for International Relations?

Mr. DOMINIQUE MOIZE (Analyst, French Institute for International Relations): The French are asking that question. And listening to Obama, seeing Obama, the question is legitimate. He's looking for a united Europe, not necessarily for a France that is coming closer to the United States but cannot really commit significant larger number of troops to Afghanistan.

BEARDSLEY: France did beef up its forces in Afghanistan somewhat, and Moize says Sarkozy took political risks to come closer to the U.S. by reintegrating France fully into NATO. But the feeling in Paris is that no one in Washington really cares.

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BEARDSLEY: In France, critics of the supercharging Sarkozy have reveled in the apparent snubs by President Obama. On a popular satirical puppet show called Le Gimieux de Lampho(ph), the Sarkozy marionette regularly calls up the Obama puppet.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Le Gimieux de Lampho")

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: I've got Barack Obama on the phone, says Sarkozy. Barack, I'll send you 35,000 men to Afghanistan. We're going to raze the region. If they want war, we'll give them war, huh, buddy?

BEARDSLEY: Julia Elvay(ph) is a writer for the show.

Mr. JULIA ELVAY (Writer, "Le Gimieux de Lampho"): (Through translator) It's all very funny because Sarkozy thinks he's Obama's equal or even better. He lives under the illusion that France is very strong and the world just cannot do without her.

BEARDSLEY: President Obama is still a hit in France, while Sarkozy's popularity is at an all-time low after its party was wiped out last week in regional elections. Analyst Dominique Moize says Sarkozy might want to use the photo op with the ever-popular Mr. Obama to help boost those ratings back home.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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