By JOHN LEICESTER
The Associated Press
Sunday, April 22, 2007; 7:18 PM
PARIS -- The raucous crowd of 15,000 flag-waving supporters erupted in joy when the woman who hopes to be France's next leader turned to a tactic tried and true: disdain and defiance toward the president of the United States.
"We will not go to get down on bended knees before George Bush!" Segolene Royal proclaimed at the rally in the southwestern city of Toulouse this week, drawing roars of "Segolene _ president!"
In contrast, the man in the May 6 runoff against her crossed the Atlantic to shake Bush's hand last September. Nicolas Sarkozy was unapologetic when one of Royal's fellow Socialists called him the U.S. president's "lapdog" and an "American neo-conservative with a French passport."
"I'd have a harder time shaking hands with a certain number of other heads of states which are not democracies," said Sarkozy. "Profound, sincere and unfailing" French friendship with the United States "is not submission," he maintains.
Relations with America have not been the major theme of the cliffhanger French campaign: economic reform, national pride, immigration and personality differences have held sway. But it has always been under the surface, an irritant and a touchstone, and a major indication of why the supposedly conservative Sarkozy is perhaps the ultimate candidate of change.
On the stump, he has evoked American themes by citing Martin Luther King Jr. and promising a "Marshall plan" of job training for the underprivileged.
And he has noted the French are avid consumers of American culture: They "listen to Madonna, just as they used to love Elvis and Sinatra. Like me, they go to movies to see 'Miami Vice' and enjoy watching 'The Maltese Falcon' or 'Schindler's List' for a second or third time... They wear American jeans and love American burgers and pizza."
On policy, the picture is not as bleak as it may appear. France and the United States worked together to force Syria to withdraw from Lebanon two years ago. They cooperated on efforts to end Israel-Hezbollah fighting last August. Their troops have fought together in Afghanistan and their intelligence agencies cooperate against al-Qaida.
So why is there so little upside for a French leader in cozying up to Washington? Outgoing President Jacques Chirac's popularity soared because he stood up to Bush; and in a poll last December, three-quarters of respondents said they want their next president to keep a distance from U.S. foreign policy.
Part of it is a yearning for a time when France _ not the United States _ was a major world power. It is deepened by dismay at the decline of French in favor of English as the language of not only diplomacy but now the Internet. And part of it is George W. Bush _ whose personality and politics have proved enduringly noxious to many here.
From the early going, Bush was viewed with suspicion in France _ for having signed off on executions as Texas governor, for opposing the Kyoto treaty on global warming and for mixing faith and governance, which sits poorly in France, where secular government is a national religion.
Bush's willingness to use U.S. power without the backing of the U.N. _ perhaps the one institution where France still commands what it sees as its rightful weight _ made things worse. In the 2003 run-up to the Iraq war, Chirac wanted U.N. weapons inspectors to be given more of a chance and his threat to veto the war in the Security Council caused the U.S.-led coalition to invade without U.N. backing. He was never invited to Bush's Crawford ranch.
Bush "has always been toast" for the French, said Andre Kaspi of Paris' Sorbonne University, author of "The Americans." "The new French president will hesitate to rush to Washington or to Crawford to show his friendship to Bush, because ... there would be an immediate reaction in France."
Sarkozy himself has opined that "the messianic side of Americans can be tiresome."
Like Royal, if he wins he is not likely to make Washington one of his first destinations, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel did. He has said that _ beyond the obvious destinations in Europe _ he will prefer Africa, where France has myriad economic and political interests, and lingering postcolonial baggage.
And campaign rhetoric aside, Sarkozy is not likely to be anyone's lapdog: like Royal, he believes in a strong France and can be expected to stand up to Washington if he feels French or European interests are not being served. That could mean continued friction in global trade talks or over subsidies for European aircraft-maker Airbus.
And while Sarkozy and Royal both agree with the United States that Iran should not build a nuclear bomb, they favor sanctions and diplomacy over military coercion. As with Iraq, the United States should not count on either to support military force against the Islamic Republic.
Sarkozy also is strongly opposed to making Turkey a member of the European Union, which puts him at odds with Washington.
But Royal seems much more committed than Sarkozy to promoting global counterweights to U.S. power.
"The United States sometimes allows itself to be dragged into mistakes by the very weight of its power," she said in a book of interviews published in March. She invokes the idea of a "multipolar world" _ code for opposing a U.S.-led "unipolar world" _ and warns again NATO, seen as a tool of America, becoming "the world's policeman."
EDITORS: John Leicester, the AP's bureau chief in Paris, has reported from France since 2002.