Rarely has a foreign dignitary—especially a French one—gushed so effusively about what's right with America. When Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy spoke at the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington last September, he was Mr. Apple Pie—à la mode. He lauded Madonna, Hemingway, Hollywood movies, the New York art scene, American scientific research—even U.S. immigration policies. "Every parent in France dreams of sending his child to an American university," Sarkozy proclaimed in his paean to Yankee Doodledom. Sniping from French elitists is mere "jealousy in the face of your brilliant success," he said. "Nobody in France dares to say the truth: the United States is the greatest economic, military and monetary power in the world."
That was then. Six months later, the conservative Sarkozy is caught in a tightening three-way race for the presidency against Socialist Ségolène Royal and center-right candidate François Bayrou. As the first round of voting nears on April 22, Sarkozy's opponents know, and so does he, that pro-Americanism counts among his greatest political liabilities. One of the Socialists' most acid commentators, former prime minister Laurent Fabius, suggests Sarkozy could succeed Britain's Tony Blair as "the future poodle of the president of the United States." Public-opinion polls indicate that sort of smear will work only too well. A recent IFOP survey concluded that 75 percent of the French would prefer a "distant" or "very distant" relationship.
Meanwhile, rivals mouth platitudes about wanting warm "people to people" ties with average Americans, yet attack Sarkozy for pandering to the much-hated man in the White House. "My diplomatic policy will not consist of going to kneel before George Bush," Royal declared after Sarkozy was granted an informal audience with the U.S. president last fall. "When Nicolas Sarkozy aligns himself with George Bush, it means he accepts this theory of war between good and evil. It means he tolerates all of these attempts at destabilization in the world." Looking for a little nuance, Bayrou has tried to sound like a friend to Americans while hosting U.S. reporters on the campaign trail, but distances himself from Bush by calling himself "Clintonian."
Not surprisingly, the Interior minister is trimming his electoral sails to suit the political winds. He may still be "Super Sarko" to supporters, but you no longer hear him describing himself as "a man of action" and "a pragmatic politician" who enjoys being called "Sarkozy the American," as he told the American Jewish Committee in 2004. According to adviser Patrick Devedjian, a former minister of Industry, the United States could expect "a change of tone" if Sarkozy goes to the Elysée Palace. "We can disagree without conflict," he says, striking an unmistakably coolish note.
That new tone shows up in various issues. On Iraq, for instance, Sarkozy sounded pro-American last year when he suggested that the Chirac government's threat to use its veto in the U.N. Security Council before the U.S.-led invasion smacked of "arrogance"—an adjective usually reserved for America. But as American forces sink ever deeper into the Mesopotamian mire, would Sarkozy help? "France doesn't plan to take part in the conflict in any way whatsoever," says Devedjian. "The situation in Iraq is modifying attitudes in the United States, not here."
Washington supports the bid by Turkey, an important NATO ally, to join the European Union. "Sarkozy told President Bush that it is up to Europeans to decide," says Devedjian. "Europe doesn't press the U.S. to accept new states. In the 19th century, President Monroe said: 'America is for the Americans.' We can respond in the 21st century, 'Europe is for the Europeans'." As for NATO itself, long led by Americans? "Why should Europeans be prevented from commanding it?" asks Devedjian.
During a stint as Finance minister—and on his many visits to the United States—Sarkozy has given the impression that, unlike most French politicians, he favors more-open international markets and less state intervention. But in a speech last week, he talked about the government's "duty of protectionism." On the one hand he derided suffocating bureaucracy, but on the other proclaimed: "I don't believe in the doctrine of laissez-faire ... I don't think that capitalism can survive if the market is everything and the state is nothing."
In the old "Superman" television series, the action hero fought for "truth, justice and the American way." Super Sarko, despite his reputation, isn't about to make that leap.
With Tracy McNicoll and Eric Pape in Paris