French ties with a side of liability

Times Staff Writer

As John F. Kerry can attest, it is risky business for a Democrat running for president to show affinity for the French.

But Barack Obama took his chances Friday at the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris. His black sedan rolled across the white gravel and parked in front, where French President Nicolas Sarkozy greeted him in the doorway.

After meeting for an hour, the pair emerged for a joint news conference at twin lecterns beneath a giant crystal and gold chandelier. The leader of France gushed over his American guest. “My dear Barack Obama,” he called him.


The two shared their common views on global warming, Iran’s nuclear program and the war in Afghanistan. But most striking in their often jovial encounter with the media was Sarkozy’s unabashed endorsement of the Illinois senator.

He recalled their first meeting in Washington -- “back in 2006, when we talked in such impassioned terms about Darfur” -- and compared it to the higher-profile get-together Friday.

“There were two of us in that office, and there were two of us in my office, and one of us became president,” Sarkozy said. “Well, let the other do likewise, eh? I mean, that’s not meddling.”

Americans will make their own choice, Sarkozy hastened to add. But, he said, “obviously, one is interested in a candidate who’s looking toward the future rather than the past, and that’s something that -- a concern that I share.”

“So good luck to Barack Obama,” Sarkozy 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.”

As Kerry learned in his failed 2004 campaign to unseat President Bush, ties to France can be a political liability. Kerry speaks fluent French. He also has French relatives in St. Briac-sur-Mer, a seaside village in Brittany. Critics mocked Kerry’s connections to the French, suggesting he was something less than an all-American guy.

By the campaign’s closing weeks, even French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, known for craving the media spotlight, had to lie low about meeting privately with Kerry in Iowa, lest the Bush campaign exploit the association.

Obama only went so far in embracing France. His trip to Europe this week included overnight stays in Berlin and London, but he whisked in and out of Paris in just five hours.

At his appearance with Sarkozy, tensions between the U.S. and France were the political subtext. Sarkozy, whose fondness for America exceeds that of many of his countrymen, joked that France was happy to welcome Obama, because “the French love Americans.”

“I’ll repeat for you, senator,” Sarkozy went on with a wry smile. “The president said the French love Americans.”

For his part, Obama quipped that after Sarkozy’s 2006 visit to the U.S., “everybody decided to call French fries ‘French fries’ again in the cafeteria.” Some conservatives had called them “freedom fries” after France declined to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Asked about his decision to spend more time in Germany and Britain, Obama said his speech in Berlin on Thursday -- to a crowd of more than 200,000 -- was aimed at a “broad European audience.” He called for stronger ties between the U.S. and Europe.

“The Europeans, I think, have seen Americans just as unilateral and militaristic and have tended to forget the extraordinary sacrifices that U.S. military, but also U.S. taxpayers, have made in helping to rebuild Europe,” Obama said.

Some Americans, he continued, believe that “Europeans don’t want to get their hands dirty on some of these difficult security issues, and they’re always critical of America.”

When asked whether it was “a good thing to be loved by the French in the United States,” Obama responded: “I think the American voter understands that problems like climate change, or energy, or terrorism cannot be solved by any one country alone -- that it has to be a group effort.”

Obama also stressed his appreciation for France’s diplomatic efforts to counter the threat that Iran might develop nuclear weapons. He urged Iran to accept the incentives offered by France and other nations to abandon its nuclear program. “Don’t wait for the next president, because the pressure, I think, is only going to build,” Obama said.

The campaign of presumed GOP presidential nominee John McCain pounced on the Democrat’s remarks, saying he contradicted earlier criticism of the Bush administration for “outsourcing” dialogue with Iran to Europeans instead of engaging in direct diplomacy.

“Does Barack Obama pick and choose his positions out of inexperience or does he just play to his audience?” said Randy Scheunemann, a senior McCain advisor.

In a CNN interview from Berlin on Friday morning, Obama said he expected voters would see the value of his trip.

He said he “wouldn’t underestimate the degree to which people in Ohio or people in Michigan or people in Missouri recognize that our long-term safety and our long-term security is going to depend on how we can interact with key allies.”