Are Sarkozy and Obama still "buddies"? By Siegfried Mortkowitz,
Paris - With schools and politicians on Easter holiday, the big news in France these days is what President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly told a group of lawmakers about several Western leaders, as reported by the left-leaning daily Liberation.
Most of the controversy concerns the president's assessment of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero as "not very clever."
This prompted Segolene Royal, the Socialist Party politician Sarkozy defeated in the 2007 presidential election, to offer a public apology to Zapatero, which provoked a fierce and often insulting tirade against Royal by Sarkozy's UMP party.
The verbal violence of the president's defenders and the ensuing dust-up may have been motivated by a subtle political end - to distract attention from what Sarkozy said about US President Barack Obama.
"He has a subtle mind, very intelligent and very charismatic. But he has been in office for only two months and he has never headed a ministry in his life," Sarkozy said, according to participants at the meeting.
There was more. "There are a number of things about which he has no position," said Sarkozy, who has a position on everything. And: "He is not always up to decision-making and efficiency."
He also reportedly said that he had told Obama to his face that he did not understand what Europeans "were doing on carbon dioxide."
This represents quite a change of tone from the welcome Sarkozy gave then-Senator Obama when he arrived in Paris in July 2008 during an overseas tour he made as part of his presidential campaign.
"Obama? That's my buddy," Sarkozy said in an interview published in the daily Le Figaro at the time.
"I am the only French person who knows him," he had boasted, recounting that he had met Obama during a visit to the United States in 2006, when he was interior minister.
One reason for Sarkozy's open courtship of Obama was to polish his image at home.
During Obama's presidential campaign, the UMP tried to exploit the American's popularity in France by playing up similarities between the two men, such as the fact that they were both children of immigrants and that they represented a "rupture" with the past.
Another, more important motive was the attempt to portray France as America's new best friend, rivaling Britain's special relationship with Washington.
When Obama was elected president, Sarkozy was the first to congratulate him, one hour before British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and two hours ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
And he had his advisors working overtime to set up an early meeting - or, barring that, a phone conversation - with the newly elected US president.
But the moment Obama took office, he seemed to forget his "buddy" in Paris.
Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Irish Prime Minister Marc Owen and Brazil's President Lula all met President Obama before Sarkozy did.
And Obama telephoned a number of African and Arab leaders well before he and Sarkozy spoke for 30 minutes ahead of this month's G20 meeting in London.
By the time the two men finally met one-on-one as presidents, at the NATO summit in the French city of Strasbourg earlier this month, the smiles seemed more forced and the enthusiasm more restrained than they had been last year.
There are several reasons for the cooling in relations, including fundamental differences on how best to fight the economic crisis.
Obama repeatedly asked European countries to increase their economic stimulus plans, but France and other European countries were more focused on keeping spending in check.
The US stimulus plan equals about 5.5 per cent of American GDP; Sarkozy's is equivalent to only 1.3 per cent of France's GDP.
Obama must also have been disappointed by Sarkozy's refusal to send more troops to Afghanistan. When candidate Obama was in Paris last year, the French president had struck a different note.
The two leaders have also disagreed over Turkey, with Obama repeatedly saying that Ankara should be admitted to the European Union, and Sarkozy - who strongly opposes Turkish EU membership - basically saying that this was none of Obama's business.
But Sarkozy's efforts to woo Obama have not been totally in vain: the US president has agreed to travel to France in June to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Noramandy landing in World War II.
But even with this success, Sarkozy could not resist a jibe, notably about the high expectations Obama has raised, the weekly L'Express reported.
"I will ask him to walk on the (English) Channel, and he'll do it," Sarkozy said.(dpa)