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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 November 2007, 14:55 GMT
France divided as Sarkozy woos US
By Hugh Schofield

French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressing the US Congress
Supporters say Mr Sarkozy has won hearts and influence in the US
That Nicolas Sarkozy is France's most pro-American president in generations - in fact, come to think of it, ever - there is no reason to argue over.

It is the one point on which both he and his enemies would agree.

A man who declared his intention on going to Washington of "reconquering the heart of America" - and who in his speech to Congress cited Elvis Presley, Charlton Heston and Neil Armstrong as his heroes - is clearly not lukewarm about "les Etats-Unis".

The question is what it all signifies.

For supporters, Mr Sarkozy is quite properly correcting a historic imbalance in French-US relations - bringing to an end the knee-jerk hostility of his predecessors, both Gaullist and Socialist.

But for his critics, the president's admiration for America is a dangerous obsession.

They see France abandoning its duty to provide the world with an alternative conception of power, as their besotted leader realigns foreign policy behind the dreaded George W.

French reaction to Mr Sarkozy's Washington visit has reflected this basic difference of views.

American dream

For pro-government newspapers like Le Figaro, Mr Sarkozy's "Operation Seduction" was a success. Hearts were won in an America starved of praise.

"In a country which cannot get over being so ill-loved in the world, it was refreshing to hear a foreigner - one from the old continent - intone so sincere a hymn to the American dream, a dream so often denigrated but which appeared to acquire a new vigour coming from his lips," the newspaper's editorial enthused.

No French president who goes to America, even in the darkest days of their relationship, has ever failed to pay lip-service to certain accepted truths.

French President Sarkozy (l) with US First Lady Laura Bush and President George W Bush (r)
Critics say he is besotted with a country he does not understand
One of these is that France is America's oldest ally; another is that France will never forget the debt of blood paid by GIs in 1944; and the third is that even when the two countries disagree on everything from farm subsidies to the war on terrorism, they are still "friends".

Mr Sarkozy said all these things, but he went much further.

When - in the speech's most ringing phrase - he declared that "wherever an American soldier dies in the world, I think of what the American army did for France", it was a conscious effort to link the shared struggles of the past with those of today.

"America can count on France," he said, in words unthinkable from Jacques Chirac.

Friends say that this new alliance will give Mr Sarkozy influence over Washington in areas where the two countries still disagree, like the environment and what Mr Sarkozy calls "the excesses of financial capitalism".

But for his opponents, the president has, in the words of Liberation newspaper, "got lost in his American dream".


The left sees the president blundering naively into an America that he worships but does not understand. And it notes sardonically that Sarkozy's paeans of praise come just as the country itself succumbs to post-Iraq disillusionment about its place in the world.

Nicolas Sarkozy (l) with his former wife Cecilia (r) (file pic)
One critic suggested he was seeking America's heart after losing his own
Significantly, Thursday's edition of Liberation was edited not by the regular staff of the newspaper but by a collective of "philosophes" - the invitation a gesture to show that philosophers remain relevant in modern society.

It need hardly be said that the philosophers are all utterly hostile to Sarkozy, but they do provide some food for thought about the well-spring of Sarkozy's Americanophilia.

Dominique Quessada, for example, said the president has "psychopathologically as well as politically" swallowed whole the myth of the lone American hero, in constant battle with society.

"His action is built round a giddying BruceWillisation: I arrive and I save the world," he wrote.

And in another flight of speculation, the philosopher and writer Michel Onfray saw significance in Sarkozy's use of the phrase "re-conquer the heart of America."

Because has the president not just lost his own heart, in the person of his beloved but now divorced wife Cecilia?

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