kennebunkport, maine -- President Bush, who prides himself on building personal ties to foreign leaders, launched a bit of hamburger diplomacy Saturday as he welcomed the newly elected president of France to an informal lunch and private chat at the Bush family compound here.
The vacationing French leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, offered a gracious medley of continental etiquette when he arrived: He shook Bush’s hand; bussed First Lady Laura Bush on both cheeks; bowed to smooch the hand of the president’s mother, Barbara Bush; and happily hugged Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara.
The White House described the seaside session as a “casual family lunch” and not a formal summit with one of America’s oldest allies. But the signs of change seemed as clear as the French tricolor flag that snapped in the breeze near the U.S. flag under a sparkling sky at the Bush estate.
In a rare departure, the White House disclosed later that former President George H.W. Bush joined his son for a 50-minute closed-door discussion with Sarkozy, as well as on a wave-smashing speedboat ride along the rocky coast.
White House aides have taken pains in the past to deflect suggestions that the elder Bush acts as a closet advisor to his son. But the tete-a-tete-a-tete Saturday confirms that the former president plays a direct role at times, at least as a sounding board and boat skipper.
Washington’s relations with France had plummeted under Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, especially over the French refusal to back the war in Iraq. Disagreements over trade and climate change exacerbated the rift, although the two governments cooperated closely on problems in Iran, Sudan and Lebanon.
Sarkozy, in contrast, is unabashedly pro-American, a man with a passion for Ernest Hemingway, Steve McQueen and Sylvester Stallone. During his campaign, he claimed he was proud to be called “Sarkozy the American.” Like Bush, he shuns alcohol and is an avid bicycle rider. “I expect to meet with a friend,” Bush told reporters before Sarkozy arrived for a 2 1/2 -hour visit. “He’s bringing a good brain, good vision and goodwill.”
Sarkozy quickly rose to the occasion. Dressed in blue jeans and a blazer, he called America a “close friend” with 250 years of shared history and sacrifice. “Do we agree on everything? No, because maybe even within a family there are disagreements, but we are still a family.”
Sarkozy also extolled the joys of taking his holiday in America, “like 900,000 French do every year.” He and his family have spent the last week boating and relaxing at a friend’s lavish estate on Lake Winnipesaukee in eastern New Hampshire, about 50 miles away.
He flew to France on Friday to attend the funeral of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, but then rushed back to continue his holiday.
Laura Bush had extended the lunch invitation when she met Sarkozy’s wife, Cecilia, during the Group of 8 summit in Germany in June.
But Mrs. Sarkozy telephoned Saturday morning to send last-minute regrets, saying that she and two of the Sarkozy children suffered from sore throats and would not join the lunch.
When Bush and Sarkozy met, the body language of their back-slapping camaraderie was a far cry from Bush’s meeting last month with Gordon Brown, the new British prime minister, at the Camp David presidential retreat near Washington. Formal and businesslike in a suit, Brown seemed determined to delineate differences between himself and the Bush administration.
Sarkozy showed no such chilliness Saturday despite a picnic lunch that might shock a French palate: hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, baked beans and blueberry pie. A White House spokeswoman said she did not know whether the menu also included French fries, dubbed “freedom fries” several years ago by some members of Congress as an expression of their displeasure with French policy.
Since arriving in Kennebunkport on Thursday, Bush has done his best to briefly escape from the worries of Iraq, the tumbling stock market and reports of crumbling transportation infrastructure.
He emerged from Walker’s Point shortly after 6 a.m. Saturday, as he had the day before, to ride his mountain bike for an hour or so on trails that weave through dense stands of white pine and northern red oak in a government-managed forest north of the family compound.
On Thursday and Friday afternoons, the president, his younger brother Jeb and their father clambered onto the family speedboat, the Fidelity III, and raced out across the ocean swells to fish for stripers and blues.
Bush flies back to Washington on Sunday and then heads down to his usual August vacation spot, his ranch in sweltering Crawford, Texas. He promised reporters that he would happily consider taking a holiday in France someday, particularly if he could ride his mountain bike.
“Plenty of mountains over there,” his father pointed out.
Asked if he spoke French, Bush the younger seemed surprised.
“No, I can’t,” he admitted with a grin.
“I can barely speak English.”