All together now: Viva la France!
Nicolas Sarkozy, the unlikely president of France, came, saw and nibbled away at the carefully nurtured mutual mistrust that has marked the Franco-American relationship since there was first an America.
Sometimes the evidence of this mistrust has been merely silly, like "freedom fries" and "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." The French think we're uncouth (mostly because we don't speak French) and, in Jacques Chirac's famous put-down of American soldiers in Iraq, because we're "Anglo-Saxons." You could tell that to Tyrone, Jiminez, Vito and all the other GIs in Baghdad who are about as "Anglo-Saxon" as Pierre. But we get the point.
So M. Sarkozy had work ahead when he arrived in Washington this week, and he succeeded in charming official Washington far beyond his expectations. The London Daily Telegraph, perhaps with a little envy, reported that his "visit to the free world was not so much a charm offensive but an outright seduction."
His speech Wednesday to a joint session of Congress, an honor rarely accorded to foreigners, was interrupted by nine standing ovations. The congressmen, even the leftmost Democrats who usually suffer waves of nausea at the mere thought of American military prowess, applauded M. Sarkozy's tribute to the Americans who helped liberate his country, twice.
The president, son of Hungarian and French-Turkish parents, opened his not-so-Gallic heart with accolade after accolade. "I want to be your friend, you ally and your partner," he said. "But a friend who stands on his own two feet." The French president was flanked by portraits of two men who helped when America was first trying to stand on two feet, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette.
His warm words were eagerly reciprocated at the White House, where he was treated to a black-tie dinner and George W. Bush, who speaks a passable border-bordello Spanish, attempted a toast in French: "Bienvenue a la Maison Blanche." Nobody in the French delegation fainted at the well-fractured French. (That was probably a first, too.)
M. Sarkozy went out of his way in Washington to pay tribute to the American sacrifice of blood to evict the Nazis from his country. He went straight from his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base to the residence of the French ambassador to Washington to confer the Legion of Honor, France's highest decoration, on seven aging veterans of World War II. "Without your sacrifice," he told them, "France would not be free." He spoke with tender feeling of the rows of snow-white crosses and Stars of David in the cemetery above Omaha Beach, where, he might have added, the young Americans who died on D-Day far from home could sleep forever under the Stars and Stripes in American soil ceded to the United States by France. The French understand the beau geste. The French government even put up the honored veterans in luxury digs at the Park Hyatt Hotel.
M. Sarkozy's affection for America is not new, and does not necessarily endear him to his countrymen. His sentiments are those that few French pols dare admit to, even if felt. "America," he wrote in his book, "Testimony," came to "aid and defend us twice in our recent history. ... You don't have to be a grand strategist to understand that our interest is to have the best possible relations with [the United States]. ... Where our strategic interests are concerned, systematically opposing the United States is a double mistake. ... If I had to choose, I feel closer to American society than to a lot of others in the world."
He even scolds his countrymen. "In [France] success is not really seen or accepted as a positive value. ... All the hard work done by those who are eventually successful is rarely acknowledged. This attitude is explained by the French desire for egalitarianism, the fascination with leveling out, and frankly, jealousy." Tough stuff. Since he came here to seduce us, he might stay awhile, and we could all enjoy a honeymoon while it lasts.