Sarko, the American? Not Anymore. If You Aspire to Become President of France, It Doesn't Pay to Be Too Friendly with the U.S

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey (With Tracy McNicoll and Eric Pape in Paris)

Rarely has a foreign dignitary--especially a French one--gushed so effusively about what's right with America. When Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy spoke at the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington last September, he was Mr. Apple Pie--A la mode. He lauded Madonna, Hemingway, Hollywood movies, the New York art scene, American scientific research--even U.S. immigration policies. "Every parent in France dreams of sending his child to an American university," Sarkozy proclaimed in his paean to Yankee Doodledom. Sniping from French elitists is mere "jealousy in the face of your brilliant success," he said. "Nobody in France dares to say the truth: the United States is the greatest economic, military and monetary power in the world."

That was then. Six months later, the conservative Sarkozy is caught in a tightening three-way race for the presidency against Socialist Segolene Royal and center-right candidate Francois Bayrou. As the first round of voting nears on April 22, Sarkozy's opponents know, and so does he, that pro-Americanism counts among his greatest political liabilities. One of the Socialists' most acid commentators, former prime minister Laurent Fabius, suggests Sarkozy could succeed Britain's Tony Blair as "the future poodle of the president of the United States." Public-opinion polls indicate that sort of smear will work only too well. A recent IFOP survey concluded that 75 percent of the French would prefer a "distant" or "very distant" relationship.

Meanwhile, rivals mouth platitudes about wanting warm "people to people" ties with average Americans, yet attack Sarkozy for pandering to the much-hated man in the White House. "My diplomatic policy will not consist of going to kneel before George Bush," Royal declared after Sarkozy was granted an informal audience with the U.S. president last fall. "When Nicolas Sarkozy aligns himself with George Bush, it means he accepts this theory of war between good and evil. It means he tolerates all of these attempts at destabilization in the world." Looking for a little nuance, Bayrou has tried to sound like a friend to Americans while hosting U.S. reporters on the campaign trail, but distances himself from Bush by calling himself "Clintonian."

Not surprisingly, the Interior minister is trimming his electoral sails to suit the political winds. …