By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008
PARIS, July 25 -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy rolled out the red carpet and more for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Friday, offering an effusive embrace that bordered on an endorsement, while a French media throng recorded the arrival of Europe's suddenly favorite American politician.
"My dear Barack Obama," Sarkozy called the senator from Illinois as the two shared a stage normally reserved for heads of state. Obama called Sarkozy "my dear friend, President Sarkozy" and at one point laid a friendly hand on his host's shoulder.
The president kept insisting that the American people, not a French politician, will pick the next leader of the United States, but he seemed incapable of taking his own words seriously.
Describing the choice for U.S. voters in November, he treated presumptive Republican nominee John McCain almost as an afterthought. "So good luck to Barack Obama," he said. "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."
Obama will have visited with three European leaders in three days by the time he wraps up his week-long tour of the Middle East and Europe on Saturday. He met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday and will meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Saturday. Obama also met with leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan and Israel, as well as with Palestinian leaders.
Brown and Sarkozy have both lost popularity since coming into office within the past 18 months. Brown may be in the worst shape after his Labor Party lost a special election in his native Scotland earlier in the week. But Sarkozy, too, is struggling, and seemed eager to be associated with an American politician who is highly popular in France.
A day after drawing about 200,000 people to the center of Berlin for an evening speech on the future of transatlantic relations, Obama found in miniature the same kind of interest and curiosity about his candidacy in Paris.
Crowds gathered behind barricades along the streets near the presidential palace, and when Obama's motorcade rolled to a stop, Sarkozy could be seen in the distance, standing alone almost at attention at the top of the steps, awaiting his guest.
Minutes later, with a huge string of photographers and television cameras waiting, Obama's car pulled into the courtyard and the visit was underway. But in no time, the two politicians were back in front of the cameras for a news conference that lasted almost as long as the meeting.
"I want to say to Barack Obama that the French have been following with passion the election campaign in the United States," Sarkozy began, "because the United States are a great democracy, and that it's fascinating to watch what's happening there."
Sarkozy, who presides over a center-right government, has been a pro-American president who has a cordial relationship with President Bush. But on Friday, he was all Obama. "We need an America that is present, not absent," he said. "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."
It was difficult to know whether Sarkozy's exuberance was getting the best of him in the presence of Obama. When a U.S. reporter asked whether Sarkozy's opening statement should be read as an endorsement -- and whether he had conferred with Bush about it, Obama stepped in. "I'm going to warn my dear friend, President Sarkozy, to be very careful about that second question," he said.
A French reporter reminded Sarkozy that when he came to power, he sought a break with the policies of his predecessor Jacques Chirac. "Do you want to see this kind of break and this kind of change taking place in the United States?"
Sarkozy offered this response: "Well, madam, a French president has to work with an American president whomsoever 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."
Then he continued: "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."
Just how much a French presidential hug can help or hurt a U.S. presidential candidate is a matter of debate. If he was worried about it, Obama did not show it, except perhaps when a French reporter recalled how 2004 Democratic candidate John F. Kerry had been criticized as being too friendly toward France.
"Is it a good thing to be loved by the French in the United States?" the reporter asked. "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 knew better than to offend either his French hosts or, more important, the American audience at home, so he mostly skirted the question. As for his short stay in Paris, a decision that may prompt questions about his judgment, he said his tight schedule forced him to move on quickly.
"I don't know anybody who doesn't want to spend more time in Paris," he said.