Standard professions of a stronger-than-ever alliance between the U.S. and France could not paper over a lingering awkwardness between President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a brief joint press conference Tuesday at the White House.
The two leaders gave hyperbolic tributes to their partnership: “We’ve never been closer,” Obama said of the U.S. and France, while Sarkozy said rarely have the two nations had views “so identical.”
But they spent most of their 20-minute briefing talking about issues in which there is at least some distance between them.
Sarkozy said he was “satisfied” with the U.S. position on Iran, moments before Obama said he thinks that the United Nations Security Council will approve stricter sanctions on Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon “within weeks.”
“We are going to move forcefully on a U.N. sanctions regime,” Obama said.
The French president does not believe U.N. sanctions are enough to stop Iran and wants the Obama administration to keep up pressure on Tehran even if sanctions are leveled.
Sarkozy has expressed an impatience with the process after Obama set an end-of-last-year deadline for Iran to respond to an offer to negotiate which has now long expired.
“The time has come to make decisions,” Sarkozy said.
Obama said that the “international community is more united than ever” on the sanctions issue, but later acknowledged that some nations remain hesitant because “commercial interests are more important to them than these long term geopolitical interests.”
In fact, China and Russia are probably further from supporting strong sanctions than they were last year after the Obama administration exposed Tehran’s use of a secret facility to enrich uranium, creating some momentum toward getting Beijing and Moscow on board.
On financial regulation, both leaders expressed satisfaction with the other’s position, yet articulated differing visions. Obama talked about a legislative proposal moving through the Senate, and gave a vague nod to “effective coordination” and “sufficient oversight” at the global finance level.
Sarkozy once again intimated that the U.S. financial system caused the global economic crisis.
“It is great news for the world to hear that the U.S. is availing itself of rules, so that we do not going back to what we experienced,” he said.
The French leader spoke of going “even further” and creating a “a new world international monetary order,” a nod to his desire for a global regulatory body.
As for their personal relationship, the two men attempted to joke together at times. Even those attempts at building a public rapport sometimes fell flat.
Obama, answering a reporters question about whether he listens to the French president, appeared to make light of Sarkozy’s propensity for verbosity.
“I listen to Nicolas all the time. I can’t stop listening to him,” Obama said.
Sarkozy protested several times that rumors of a strain between himself and Obama were overblown or even made up out of thin air. He declared himself “amused” by it all.
“People must be listening to our phone calls,” Sarkozy said sarcastically.
Sarkozy also raised a question that had in fact not been asked: Is Europe interested in the U.S.? His answer to his own question had the effect of being a subtle accusation that Obama has not paid enough attention to Europe.
“How many times do we have to come over to show we are interested?” Sarkozy said.
There has been speculation that Obama’s gaze has drifted away from Europe and toward rising powers such as China and India.
One light moment that did seem to please both men was Obama’s disclosure that Sarkozy ate lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the small diner in Washington that Obama famously visited a few days before his inauguration.
Obama said Sarkozy’s choice of a half-smoke sausage “shows his discriminating palate.”