Snubbed Sarkozy to make up with Obama over dinner
AFTER a year of frostiness Barack Obama will finally grant Nicolas Sarkozy the special gesture that he craves tonight: a cosy meal for the French first couple in the Obama family dining room.
The invitation to Mr Sarkozy and Carla Bruni is seen in Paris as a reward for the president's dogged attempts to bond with a US leader who has kept him at arm's length since he took office. Barack and Michelle Obama have invited no other foreign leader to a private dinner, Mr Sarkozy's aides note proudly.
The photo opportunity with "mon ami Barack" is especially welcome to Mr Sarkozy as he struggles with unpopularity at home. A week after his centre-right Union for a Popular Movement took a beating in regional elections, he had the lowest approval rating in polls since he won office in 2007.
Mr Sarkozy's day in Washington is an exercise in fence-mending after Mr Obama failed to respond to Mr Sarkozy's wish to be treated as Europe's pre-eminent leader when he took office in January last year. Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel of Germany and six other European leaders had invitations to the Obama White House before the French.
The ultimate insult for Mr Sarkozy was Mr Obama's refusal in June to accept a dinner invitation at the Elysee Palace when he was staying next door at the residence of the US Ambassador to Paris.
Mr Sarkozy responded by sniping in private at Mr Obama, calling him unbriefed and inexperienced. He criticised Mr Obama for tackling only one big reform -- healthcare -- while he was shaking up France on all fronts. The table has turned, however, with Mr Obama able to boast success while Mr Sarkozy's reforms have become bogged down.
US officials have insisted that Mr Obama meant no slight against the French head of state. The least European of US presidents has kept the entire continent at relative arm's length while focusing on Asia, French diplomats note. For Mr Obama the Sarkozy visit is a chance to show that he is not neglecting Europe.
Mr Sarkozy has refused Mr Obama's call to send more troops to Afghanistan. He is expected to announce tomorrow that gendarmes and other military personnel will be sent to train Afghan police and soldiers, but French officials were careful not to promise an increase on top of the 80 extra personnel announced in London in January.
At his meeting with Mr Obama, Mr Sarkozy will also reiterate Europe's unhappiness over the bidding for a $35bn (€26bn) Air Force refuelling tanker contract.
Paris backs claims by EADS, the Airbus parent company, that the bidding has been rigged to favour Boeing against an alliance of Airbus and the US Lockheed company. A spokes-man for the French Embassy in Washington said that Mr Sarkozy would ask for an extension to the May 10 deadline.
In a speech yesterday Mr Sarkozy urged the US to think beyond its borders. "You should reflect on what it means to be the world's number one power," he said. "The world does not stop at the East Coast." (© The Times, London)