Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between America and France? Like Rick and Louis in "Casablanca," the two countries are reaching a new, post-Iraq-invasion appreciation of each other – long overdue, and due mostly to France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
It started with his different – for France – attitude toward the United States. (Former French President Jacques Chirac would never have vacationed stateside, let alone in New Hampshire, the way Sarkozy did this summer.) And it's being followed up with encouraging changes in foreign policy.
For decades, Paris has prided itself on its separateness from Washington. Nowhere has that been more visible than in its break with the US over the Iraq war. Not that that position was a mistake, says President Sarkozy, but the almost automatic anti-Americanism that accompanied it was.
"Here's a country that some of France's elites claim to detest, or at least criticize regularly in a stereotypical way. This is rather strange," he wrote in his preelection book, "Testimony." He rightly reminds the French of the strong links between the two countries: shared democratic ideals in their founding revolutions and the US fought for France in two world wars.
Since taking office as a reformer last May, this presidential dynamo has moved swiftly to remake domestic and foreign policy. Washington is delighted over some key shifts, the biggest in the Middle East, where he's altered France's traditionally pro-Arab bias to more openly embrace Israel. "I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's security," he said last month.
That puts France more in line with the US on Iran, whose uranium enrichment program flaunts UN resolutions and threatens not only Israeli and regional security, but world peace. France under Sarkozy wants further UN sanctions against Iran. Absent that, Sarkozy is urging European countries to apply their own sanctions so that Iran will comply. He's emphasizing tough negotiations, not war, but like President Bush, he's not willing to take any options, including military ones, off the table.
France is nearing the US in other ways: sending more trainers and warplanes to Afghanistan and hinting it will rejoin NATO as a full member (a turnaround from some 40 years ago when President Charles de Gaulle ordered NATO forces out of France).
This coming together is valuable, not just for greater US-French cooperation, but for America's relationship with Europe as a whole.
But if a US president believes he (or she) can go walking arm-in-arm with Sarkozy, it would be best to remember a few fundamentals. First, some real policy differences remain. Second, Sarkozy may be US-friendly, but can he bring his country with him? France, also founded on idealism, has its own way – sometimes a competing way – of promoting that idealism in the world.
Global warming is a case in point. The US is failing to lead on the environment, Sarkozy says bluntly. And in his book, he criticizes the Americans for tending to think that they "are always the best," and the only ones on the side of good.
America, Sarkozy is saying, needs an attitude adjustment, too. In this new relationship, that ought to be something friends can openly talk about.