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Sen. Obama Holds News Conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris

CQ Transcripts Wire
Friday, July 25, 2008 2:05 PM

SPEAKERS: SEN. BARACK OBAMA, D-ILL.

FRENCH PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY

[*] (JOINED IN PROGRESS) SARKOZY (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): ... how happy France is to welcome him. France is happy to welcome Barack Obama, first of all, because he's American and the French love the Americans.

Now, if I weren't to say this, they'd have been disappointed. I'll repeat for you, Senator: The president said the French love the Americans. When I said this, he says, "Because if I hadn't said it, they'd have been disappointed."

I want to say to Barack Obama that the French have been following with passion the election campaign in the United States, because the United States are a great democracy and that it's fascinating to watch what's happening there.

And because America -- the America that France loves is an America that's farsighted, that has ambitions, great debates, strong personalities. We need an America that is present, not absent. We need friends who are independent, but who are true friends. And you have to know that here in Europe, here in France, we're watching with great interest what you're doing.

And then, in Europe, my dear Barack Obama, there are a lot of people who come from very different backgrounds with very -- what I would call multiple histories and stories, perhaps not classic or traditional French, and not everyone here is called Sarkozy, you know.

And I'm aware of the fact that not everyone is called "Obama" in the United States of America. And that's a sense of -- gives us a sense of America of adventure. And Barack Obama's adventure is an adventure that rings true in the hearts and mind of the French and of Europeans.

Of course it's not up to the French to choose the next president of the United States of America, whom so ever that may be. We will work with (inaudible) happily and gladly.

But I am especially happy to be meeting with the senator. I met him back in 2006, when we talked in such impassioned terms about Darfur and what was happening there. And there were two of us in that office. And there were two of us in my office, and one of us became president. Well, let the other do likewise, huh? I mean, that's not meddling.

And I also want to say to the ladies and gentlemen of the press that Barack Obama and I talked about many things -- Iran, peace in the Middle East -- and I want to say that there's a tremendous convergence of views. This was a fascinating discussion we had.

Bernard Kouchner participated in the discussion. And thank you for that. A lot of convergence of views and a tremendous sense of impatience (ph) or looking forward to the great American democracy, choosing its president, so that we can do things together, we Europeans and you Americans, on climate change, on reforming world institutions, on peace in the world, on injecting more ethics into financial capitalism. There's so much we can do together.

So, Senator, the floor is yours.

OBAMA: Well, first of all, I want to thank President Sarkozy for hosting me and welcoming me to Paris. I can't imagine somebody who better captures the enthusiasm and energy of France than your president.

And I also want to thank Foreign Minister Kouchner. We had a very productive discussion on a range of challenges and opportunities that France and the United States both share.

And I also want to say that I recall our meeting the first time. I don't know whether people are aware that, when President Sarkozy went to Washington, he wasn't yet elected as president. He met with only two United States senators. That was me and John McCain.

(LAUGHTER)

So I would suggest that, for the reporters in the room, if you want to know something about elections, you should talk to the president of France.

(LAUGHTER)

He seems to have a good nose for how things play out.

I obviously am very appreciative of President Sarkozy's longstanding commitment to strengthen the bilateral relationship between France and the United States and enhance transatlantic relations as a whole. He has been a great leader on this, and the American people greatly appreciate President Sarkozy's approach to the relationship between our two countries.

When he came as president now to speak, he was treated like a rock star. Everybody loved him. And I think it was after that that everybody decided to call French fries "French fries" again in the cafeteria.

(LAUGHTER)

But I share his view that the United States and Europe can and will accomplish far more when we join in common cause. And today we reviewed some of the key goals that the United States and France can work together towards.

First, we discussed some of the common security challenges that we face, including peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which is obviously so important to all of us.

We discussed Iraq, and I gave my impressions about the improved situation there.

We discussed Afghanistan, which is absolutely critical, and I thanked President Sarkozy and the people of France for the extraordinary commitment. While I was in Afghanistan, the NATO commanders, the U.S. commanders on the ground all expressed great admiration and appreciation for the wonderful work that the French troops are doing in Afghanistan.

And we talked about Iran, which we agree is an extraordinarily grave situation. President Sarkozy and I agree that the world must send a clear message to Iran to end its illicit nuclear program. A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to both of our nations. It would endanger Israel and the rest of the region and could embolden terrorists and spark a dangerous arm race in the Middle East.

So I applaud France's current role in the E.U. 3-plus-3 efforts to use strong diplomacy to end this threat. It's important as we move forward for the United States and our European allies to remain full partners in this effort.

And that's why I'm glad that the United States assigned Bill Burns, who's an outstanding diplomat, to participate in the current talks that are taking place.

And my expectation is, is that we're going to present a clear choice to Iran: Change your behavior and you will be fully integrated into the international community, with all of the benefits that go with that. Continue your illicit nuclear program, and the international community as a whole will ratchet up pressure with stronger and increased sanctions.

And we should have no illusion that progress will come easily. But we should -- I do want to make this point. Iran should accept the proposals that President Sarkozy and the E.U. 3-plus-3 are presenting now. Don't wait for the next president, because the pressure, I think, is only going to build.

Now, this is part of the broader security agenda that we both care about, so we talked about Afghanistan. And, again, I think President Sarkozy's step to greater integration with NATO is going to enhance NATO's ability to combat 21st-century challenges, ranging from counterterrorism to peacekeeping. And I applauded him for that.

I think the United States should welcome a powerful defense in Europe. And I think the leadership that President Sarkozy is showing on this is important.

We also talked about Darfur and the need for the United States to join with the Europeans to prevent the continuing spread of instability and despair that affects not only Sudan, but also the broader region.

So the last point I want to make -- and then we can open it up for questions -- is President Sarkozy emphasized that, in his upcoming role as president of the E.U., one of the biggest priorities is going to be the issue of climate change.

And I've said to him that, should I end up being the next president of the United States, this is also going to be one of my highest priorities, not only because it impacts our environment in a profound way, but also because it has a direct impact on our national security and on our economic interests, as well. If we do not have an energy policy that curbs our use of fossil fuels, then we are going to have a whole host of problems in the coming decades. And so I think that the American people are ready to take serious steps. Many of the countries of Europe have been in the lead on these issues. I'm looking forward to being a partner with the president on that process, as well.

So, with that, what I'd suggest is that we open it up for questions.

How are we managing this? Do we decide? Are we just present? Why don't -- you'll call on some -- a couple of French reporters, and I'll call on a couple of U.S. reporters. Is that right?

SARKOZY (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): (inaudible) Americans agree to be selected. You choose (ph). I approve. I approve of the idea of selecting a journalist, but I will simply say that I'm following Barack Obama's lead. Perhaps an American journalist first.

QUESTION: Mr. President Sarkozy, you know that, in France, the presence of Barack Obama and what he's done in terms of breaking the barriers in the United States has sort of made a resurgent black consciousness movement here. The black people in France are very proud and very hopeful for their future.

They also live, many of them, in poor situations, and you know you've had your own riots here, and protests, and disturbances in the banier (ph) and the cites (ph).

At one point, when we were covering those riots, when you were interior ministry, you called the rioters "scum." And I'm wondering whether you feel today, when you stand next to somebody you clearly admire so much and who has broken so many barriers, that you regret that term or that you wish you hadn't said it?

SARKOZY (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Thank you, madam, for your exceptional knowledge of French political life and your contribution to friendship among peoples.

But precisely, if there was the need for change, it's because change was needed. And I'm so glad that you should mention in front of Barack a situation that prevailed before I became president in France.

Now, this was back in 2005, you remember, madam? We've had major confrontations at that time. And you in the United States know exactly what that means, because you'd also had that kind of difficulty.

And there's a difference between the kind of confrontations that I had to handle as minister of the interior and those that you have handled in the United States. There wasn't a single person who died in France. Not a single bullet was shot by the police. The only injuries that were sustained were sustained by the police.

Now, since I was elected, there hasn't been a single riot, because we've implemented a considerable development program for these inner cities. What I want to ensure is that the political adventure of Senator Barack Obama not simply be contained or be exclusive of a great country like the United States of America.

You know, how many years has it been since you haven't had an American-sounding name for your secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condi Rice? That's why I love the United States. And that's why in France we have Rachida Dati, Fadela Amara, Rama Yade, precisely so that each be given an opportunity, that everyone have an opportunity.

And so what the Americans have done -- and that's what I talked about -- and I'm proud of what has been done in the United States and that's what I want to do here.

One last detail. When I talked about affirmative action, positive discrimination, that is the way the Americans have said, for instance, there must be as much differentiation than as much -- as many different faces leading a country than at the grassroots.

But I don't know if you wanted to please me by putting this question, but you certainly did. So thank you for your question.

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): As the president said, the excitement of your visit here in France is tremendous. This didn't really help John Kerry in 2004. So is it a good thing to be loved by the French in the United States? Isn't this likely to work against you? And does that explain why you're spending so little time in France, whereas you have spent much more time with our German friends?

OBAMA: Well, the truth is that the speech that I gave in Germany was hopefully speaking to a broad European audience. And I hope that some of my friends in France were able to hear my desire for a strengthening relationship between the United States and Europe.

OBAMA: I think for too long there has been a caricature on both sides of the Atlantic. The Europeans, I think, have seen Americans just as unilateral and militaristic and have tended to forget the extraordinary sacrifices that U.S. military, but also U.S. taxpayers have made in helping to rebuild Europe, but also helping to -- to provide security and development around the world.

On the other hand, in the United States, there's been a tendency to think that, well, you know, the Europeans don't want to get their hands dirty on some of these difficult security issues, and they're always critical of America.

And one of the wonderful things with President Sarkozy's presidency has been that he's broken -- he's shattered many of those stereotypes and, I think, reminded Americans of the long tradition of friendship between America and France, one that dates back to the founding of our country.

As far as me spending time in Paris, I don't know anybody who doesn't want to spend more time in Paris. So it really just had to do with the fact that the way our schedule was structured, I've been gone a very long time.

It's unusual for a presidential campaign -- candidate to be out of the country for more than a week. And so I think we've just had to abbreviate these last meetings. But I assure you that I look forward to coming back and spending much time here.

And, finally, one aspect of your question that I think needs to be addressed, I think the average American has enormous fondness for the French people. And I think people in France and people throughout Europe should not underestimate how much interest there is in America in seeing the transatlantic relationship improving.

I think the American voter understands that problems like climate change, or energy, or terrorism cannot be solved by any one country alone, that it has to be a group effort. And that's why establishing and strengthening the kinds of partnerships that we've discussed is so important.

It's your turn.

SARKOZY: OK.

(THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No questions?

OBAMA: (inaudible) QUESTION: Senator Obama, in your speech last night, you called on our European allies to aid more in the effort in Afghanistan. How specifically would you like -- how many specific troops would you like to see France, Germany, Britain recommit to that effort? Would you like them to send the additional two to three brigades that you're calling for U.S. troops?

OBAMA: Well, I think the United States needs to send two additional brigades at least. Obviously, the greater the commitment from our NATO allies and the more those committed troops are not restrained, in terms of their rules of engagement, the more -- or the more it frees up the United States from having to send even more troops.

That's why I'm so grateful for the French troop presence that already exists and for President Sarkozy's willingness to send additional troops.

And I should point out that I understand the difficult politics of this in France and I understand the difficult politics throughout Europe. And that's why I think President Sarkozy's stand is so courageous.

You know, war is never easy, as I said in my speech last night, but Afghanistan is a war that we have to win. We do not have an option. We can't have a situation in which Al Qaida and the Taliban have created safe havens that are potentially disruptive not only in the region, but end up being the focal points around which terrorist attacks are planned that could affect Paris or New York.

So we don't have a choice. We've got to -- we've got to finish the job. And that involves not just the military; it also involves economic development. And, again, that's an area where the Europeans and NATO can obviously been -- be extraordinarily helpful and have already been extraordinarily helpful.

Mr. President, do you want to comment on that at all?

SARKOZY (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, I agree with Barack Obama. In Afghanistan, we are not allowed to fail. We cannot afford to fail. We cannot let the Taliban return, people who deprived 6 million little girls, little girls from going to school. We cannot allow the return of people who cut a woman's hand off (inaudible) nail varnish on.

We cannot allow people to return who, in a football stadium, in front of thousands of people, would stone a woman who was claimed to be adulterous. That is what I believe. That is political (ph). That is what values and human rights stand for.

And the decision that we took with the French government, with Francois Fillon (ph) and Bernard Kouchner, to send troops, additional troops, so that the Dark Ages should not return to Afghanistan was a strategic decision. And we stand by our allies there.

Now, of course there are questions. Of course I share the concerns expressed by Mr. Obama on Pakistan. But in Afghanistan, we are there to ensure that human rights and values prevail.

We're not there against the Afghans, the Afghanis, but against the terrorist extremists. And that is the war we're waging.

Imagine were we to pull out. Imagine if we were to give up. Imagine if we weren't to support President Karzai, despite all the difficulties entailed. And there was a remarkable donor conference organized by Bernard Kouchner that focused on this.

Yes, Barack, there was a debate in France. And it's normal, and it's right and proper that in a democracy there be a debate on such things as sending troops. It's never with a light heart that you send your troops abroad.

But there comes a time where you have to believe in your ideals and your principles. You have to be capable of seeing further. And that's what being a head of state means, to be able to see beyond the immediate headlines or the immediate news.

And that is what I thought. That is why I took this difficult decision. It was a difficult decision. Now, we had to explain it to our people, and our allies have to know that this is a real commitment on our part.

What is at stake there is colossal. Of course it's not always easy. And what Senator Obama said about the future and that the Americans want to focus primarily on Afghanistan is good news for all of us who believe that there is a future for a free and democratic Afghanistan.

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Mr. Obama, you said that you wanted a new partnership between Europe and the United States. Now, in light of the challenges that we face in common, how would you go about this? How would you go about this differently than George Bush?

And to President Sarkozy, you wanted to make a -- or show there was a break vis-a-vis your predecessor, Jacques Chirac, on certain diplomatic issues. Barack Obama also wants -- is calling for change. And are you -- do you want to see this kind of break and this kind of change taking place in the United States?

OBAMA: Well, let me, first of all, just remind everybody that I'm not the president.

(LAUGHTER)

I am a United States senator. I am a candidate for president, but there's a wonderful tradition in the United States that's not always observed, but I think is a good one, which is that you don't spend time criticizing a sitting president when you're overseas, because I think that we have one president at a time. And it's very important that our foreign policy is presented in one voice.

What I can say affirmatively is that an effective U.S. foreign policy will be based on our ability not only to project power, but also to listen and to build consensus. And the goal of an Obama administration in foreign policy would be obviously to act on behalf of the interests and the security of the United States, but also to listen carefully enough to our allies that we understand their interests, as well, and we try to find ways that we can work together to meet common goals.

The United States is a very powerful country. But, as I said before, an issue like climate change is not one we can solve by ourselves. It's going to require an international effort.

Not only are we going to have to look at what countries like France and Germany are already doing and making some very difficult choices to deal with their carbon emissions and to make energy more efficient, but we're also going to have to talk to countries like China and India that are less developed right now and have greater poverty. And it's going to be very hard for us to ask them to take seriously these issues if they see that wealthy nations are not taking them seriously.

And that's an example of where we have to present a common front and a common agenda in order to get all the countries in the nation -- all the countries in the world involved in what is going to be an enormous undertaking.

So -- so my goal is just to make sure that, whether it's our European allies, whether it's Muslim countries, whether it's our friends in Asia, that people feel as if the United States is taking their interests, their concerns into account, and that we are interested in the prosperity and peace of ordinary people, and not just seeing our foreign policy only through the lens of our own security.

SARKOZY (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, madam, a French president has to work with an American president whom so ever that may be. I mean, we respect the choice of the Americans. We've worked and we work with the administration, the Bush administration, as one would work with any friendly country, with any ally or friend.

But the idea of an America that would set as a priority being sensitive to and listening to the concerns of our friends is obviously very attractive. A president -- an American administration that says we're not afraid of defense Europe (ph), because we need Europe and France alongside us to make NATO stronger and more European, an American administration that would say -- that says we have to work as a team.

Remember -- remember that the -- at the Union for the Mediterranean meeting, Syria asked two countries to sponsor it, if one day it were to enter into direct talks with Israel, and those two countries were one European, France in particular, and the United States. And that is extremely good and extremely positive.

It's very important, not that a candidate criticize the existing foreign policy, but to say -- to participate in a real debate. I would rather hear that sort of language rather than people saying, "Well, you go it alone." But a candidate should say, "We don't claim to have understood everything throughout the world. We want to work with our partners and allies."

That is nothing but good news. It doesn't amount to criticism of the existing administration. It just says that, "I'm open to such ideas."

Imagine what kind of trip or impact we could have had if, as we had the idea two years ago, we were to go together to visit Darfur. That is the sort of responsibility we'd like to see our allies, and in particular our American allies, shouldering.

Perhaps a question -- another question, one or two more questions.

QUESTION: Thank you. Senator Obama, it's been a busy week, eight days, nine days. We lose track after a while. You have been to war zones. You've met one-on-one with 20, 25 leaders, including President Sarkozy here.

In all that you've heard in those discussions, is there anything that has caused you to re-think or perhaps refine anything, any of your policies, anything that you thought you believed coming into this trip?

And, President Sarkozy, your opening statement sounded a great deal like an endorsement. Was it that? And if so, have you conferred with your good friend, President Bush, about this?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: OK, well, the -- first of all, I'm going to warn my dear friend, President Sarkozy, to be very careful about that second question.

(LAUGHTER)

In terms of what I've learned, you know, I think, on a trip like this, what typically happens is not blinding insight, but rather a deepening of some -- a set of concerns that you already had.

And so I didn't see a -- there was nothing -- there was nothing that I saw that caused me to change my basic strategic assessment of our security situation moving forward and some of our top foreign policy priorities.

I mean, going to Afghanistan confirmed for me that the situation is worsening there, that we're going to have to put more troops in, that we've got to deal with issues of the narcotics trade, we've got to do more for ordinary Afghans, and we've got to deal with Pakistan and the situation in that border, if we're going to secure it.

My trip to Iraq confirmed that the security situation has greatly improved, that our troops have performed an extraordinary service, and that the Iraqi government is ready to take more responsibility, and that that will free up our capacity then to begin withdrawing our troops at a steady, prudent pace, and that we still have work to do on the political side in resolving issues like how oil revenues are going to be allocated, and that there is still suspicions between the Sunni and the Shia in the country that are under the surface and sometimes above the surface, and that that political reconciliation, that work has to be our top priority, as well as making sure that the Iraqi government is capable enough to deliver for its people.

OBAMA: My impressions in the Middle East confirmed that the talks that emerged out of Annapolis are very useful and productive, but it is going to be important for the United States to engage in a significant way in moving those issues forward.

President Sarkozy did mention one area that hadn't received much attention stateside, but I think does present an opportunity. I was interested in seeing that people in Israel were very interested in pursuing -- or very interested in what a shift in Syrian foreign policy might bring, that if, in fact, Assad was serious about dealing with their support of Hamas or their support of Hezbollah, that that could be a game-changer.

But with -- understandably, they were skeptical about how quickly that might move. But I think that's an area worth exploring and having leaders like President Sarkozy help -- helping to move that along, I think has enormous potential.

And in terms of my visit to Europe, it confirmed for me that you have some extraordinary new leaders, like Chancellor Merkel, like President Sarkozy, who are oriented towards working effectively with America and that some of the tensions and differences that we've had in the past are precisely that -- they're in the past -- and that Europe is ready to move forward.

And I think we have to have an American administration that is also ready to move forward. And I think that's starting to happen.

One last point I guess I would make is that there is uniform concern about Iran. That was the other thing that I think was helpful.

I always considered it one of our utmost threats. I knew that Israel considered it their top security priority. It was gratifying to see that there's no leader I spoke with that was not concerned about the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon, understanding not only that it would pose an existential threat to Israel, but that it would help to potentially unravel any work that we might hope to do on nonproliferation issues, and that it would change the strategic balance in the region in a way that could be very dangerous in all sorts of ways.

And so I think there's an opportunity to really create a unified international effort on this front. And President Sarkozy will be, and has been, and will continue to be one of the most important leaders on this issue. SARKOZY (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, sir, the Americans will choose their president, you know, not I. Americans will make the choice, and I think you're old enough to have an idea or two of your own. And I did not await the presidential election or campaign to say that France wanted to work hand-in-glove with the Americans.

And I've often been criticized that -- a lot, in fact. I've been criticized a lot for having said that. But, obviously, one is interested in a candidate who's looking towards the future, rather than the past, and that's something that -- a concern that I share.

And, you know, I was standing or running for election not so long ago, and I still have a few memories of that campaign, and I'm interested to talk about this with someone who's in the same situation. I mean, if we were sharing the same office, we'd simply say -- you'd simply be saying that we shared our experiences.

That's interesting. And that's why, in reforming the French constitution, I wanted to restrict the number of consecutive presidential terms to two. And I think it's very -- it's very interesting to see the way the American democracy is constantly renewing itself and within no more, less (inaudible) more than a decade, offering its voters the choice of going for a new vision, a new type of leadership, rather than looking back. I say that because I'm at a beginning of my term, but I think it's going to get more difficult rather than less difficult.

So good luck to Barack Obama. If he is chosen, then France will be delighted. And if it's somebody else, then France will be the friend of the United States of America.

And, likewise, when -- for him, when there are elections in France, he won't say, "Well, it's up to the Americans to choose a French leader." Of course not. But, yes, admittedly we've had -- I mean, the kind of conversations we've had for some time, I've been very interested.

And we're entitled to agree, are we not? It's not because we agree that we disagree with others. But because we agree amongst ourselves, this simply means that we talk, we continue talking, we talk regularly, and we have points of convergence.

And, you know, I think that's rather -- that's good news. And if that was your question, then that is my answer.

Last question?

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Senator, you seem to have a lot of points in common with President Sarkozy. You're from sort of immigrants (ph) or foreigners. You've both of you won and lost in an election campaign. And I'd like to know what kind of inspiration you draw from President Sarkozy, apart from the fact that you want to win?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Well, I do think that President Sarkozy's election here in France indicates the degree to which the West generally is at its best when it's opening up opportunity to all people, when it's a meritocracy and people rise from all walks of life.

That's something that America has always taken great pride in. It is the essence of what we call the American dream, that anybody, even if they were born into poverty, their families have no name, or no fame or no fortune, that they can still rise and be successful. And I think to see that same spirit in France is a powerful thing.

The other thing that inspires me is the president's energy. So I want -- I'm asking him what he eats...

(LAUGHTER)

... so that I can find out how I can always have as much energy as this man beside me. He is -- he's on the move all the time. And that's what you need if you're going to bring about change.

So I'm grateful to him for our friendship. I'm grateful to the people of France for their hospitality. And I'm looking forward to coming back and being able to spend more time enjoying the wonders of France.

Thank you very much, everybody.

END

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