French President Nicolas Sarkozy will try to galvanise US support for co-ordinated international action to tighten financial regulation during a meeting and private dinner with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday.
The French president intends to use his first visit to the White House since Mr Obama’s election to press for a speedier adoption of the measures agreed at the G20 summits in Pittsburgh and London last year and to urge closer co-ordination with European capitals.
In a speech to New York’s Columbia University on Monday, Mr Sarkozy exhorted the word’s biggest power to “share, listen and discuss” and to help Europe “reinvent the world economy”.
Mr Sarkozy’s visit to the White House will culminate with the rare privilege of a private dinner with his US counterpart and their spouses. It is partly intended to dispel suggestions that the relationship between the two presidents is prickly and cool.
Mr Sarkozy is still smarting from Mr Obama’s decision during a visit to France last year to decline an invitation to dine at the Elysée palace so that he could take his family to a Parisian bistro.
On paper, the most Atlanticist French president in 50 years and a US president who is a committed multilateralist should make a happy couple. But differences of temperament and style have been compounded by disputes over policy and a French suspicion that Mr Obama is simply not interested in Europe, let alone France.
In a particularly pointed remark in his Columbia speech, Mr Sarkozy referred to the failure of the Copenhagen summit on climate change – where Mr Obama sidelined Europe to negotiate directly with China – as the “caricature of a failure of the method” of global governance.
Mr Sarkozy’s state visit to Washington has created less interest on the US side than his visit in November 2007, when George W. Bush was still president. On that occasion, the French leader dazzled US lawmakers with a speech to Congress professing his love for America and his intention of taking France back into Nato’s military command structure 50 years after General de Gaulle pulled it out.
This time Mr Sarkozy bears no such gift: he has refused to send extra combat troops to Afghanistan.
Although French diplomats insist that the broad approach to global problems taken by Paris and Washington has seldom been closer, there are tensions between the two capitals on a number of issues.
Mr Sarkozy has been frustrated by US delays in embracing tighter financial regulation. French officials acknowledge that the fault lies as much in Congress as in the White House, but there is also frustration at Washington’s tendency to launch initiatives on its own.
The French president has been critical about Mr Obama’s prolonged attempt to reach out to Iran and his reluctance to get tough with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions.
Mr Obama’s push for a world without nuclear weapons and for the atomic bomb to be “delegitimised” has gone down badly in Paris, where nuclear deterrence is still seen as an indispensable pillar of France’s security and its independence.
Mr Sarkozy’s public carping about Mr Obama has created a sense of froideur between the two men. With the French president suffering from record unpopularity at home, and Mr Obama enjoying a boost from the success of healthcare reform, Mr Sarkozy’s visit is an occasion for statesmanship.
But he still cannot resist the odd dig. Speaking at Columbia, he congratulated Mr Obama on prevailing with healthcare reform, before appearing to belittle the achievement: “Welcome to the club of states that do not abandon their sick people. It is only 50 years since we solved that problem.”
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