Sarkozy's Obama Envy

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Byline: Christopher Dickey; With Tracy McNicoll in Paris

Facing down Iran, French president Nicolas Sarkozy stood shoulder to shoulder with President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Pittsburgh last week. Or so it might be said. The statements of all three were consistent as they denounced the Islamic Republic's construction of a secret nuclear facility. But in this stage show of solidarity, body language sent a different message. Obama and Brown really did stand side by side. Sarkozy stood apart, looking a little like he'd been asked to stand as best man at a stranger's wedding.

Perhaps in his gut he thought this should have been his show--or at least his and Obama's. The G20 that all were attending is a forum that Sarkozy pushed to create last year. And Sarkozy's government has taken the lead in confronting Iran over its nuclear intentions.

Sarkozy wants to lead: he made it clear last year he didn't want to step down from the European presidency when his six-month term was over. Sarkozy wants to act: he's shown that in such faraway venues as the Gulf of Aden, where French troops were the first to stop payments to, and start shooting at, Somali pirates. And Sarkozy can claim, with some justification, that where he has led, Obama has followed.

Since Sarkozy became president in the summer of 2007, a year and a half before Obama took the oath of office, he has been out in front of the United States on issues ranging from Somali pirates, Iran, and the G20, to Cash for Clunkers, a carbon tax, the "Afghanization" of the Afghan war, coping with Russian belligerence, and opening the door to peace with Syria. His style is to be everywhere at once and all the time--the hyperpresident, as the French press calls him--and in that, too, Obama sometimes seems to be following his lead.

But he's not. In fact, relations between the two leaders have been far from ideal or always effective. It's sometimes unclear if Obama even notices his hyperkinetic counterpart. And that explains the ambitious Parisian's Obama obsession. Few people outside France expect the leader of the world's fifth-largest economy to set the global pace on major issues. But Sarkozy, sometimes known as l'Americain at home, has often tried to do just that. Under him the Paris-Washington partnership has become in many ways the most dynamic bilateral relationship in the Atlantic alliance, and one that helps set the global agenda. As their speeches at the United Nations and the G20 last week made clear, both he and Obama are committed internationalists with a similar vision of the new, more just and regulated world economic order. But--and this is part of the problem--both also expect to be at the forefront of any initiative: Obama because he is president of the United States, and Sarkozy because he's so ambitious, and the French are so ambitious for their president.

The question that haunts Sarkozy is whether anyone sees him as part of a globe-beating tandem--and whether this team will ever achieve its potential. The two presidents' very different personalities can collide: Obama, smiling but aloof, treats Sarkozy as one of many not-quite-equals in Europe, while Sarkozy, the backslapper, likes to call the U.S. president his "buddy," but hasn't had the favor returned. Watching the two of them onstage together, as when they appeared at D-Day anniversary commemorations in Normandy in June, is like watching the diminutive tough-guy actor Joe Pesci--all twitches and attitude--playing against Denzel Washington, all dignity and reserve. When Obama decided not to hang around for a family photo op with Sarkozy, the Elysee's fury at the perceived slight was a sensation in the Paris press.

Sarkozy's Obama complex is now a subject of persistent media speculation in France--and could become a real problem if the Obama administration doesn't make more of an effort to understand it. This isn't just a matter of policies and personalities, but of politics. …