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Sarkozy is feeling l'amour

Republicans put down the cudgels and raise a toast to a French leader seen as a model for political reinvention.

November 07, 2007|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After years of bashing the French for refusing to help fight the war in Iraq, Republicans are suddenly embracing Paris like Cyd Charisse in "Silk Stockings."

"France is one of my favorite countries now. I can't say it was before. But it's become one of my favorite countries," Rudolph W. Giuliani recently gushed to PBS interviewer Charlie Rose.

And former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee has similarly suggested the U.S. not only stop pooh-poohing all things French, but toast the end of the long estrangement with French wine.

La raison appears to be Nicolas Sarkozy, the new, American-loving French president who dined at the White House on Tuesday night, entertained by actors dressed as George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who helped Washington win the Revolutionary War. Sort of a theatrical reminiscence of a happy first date.

GOP standard-bearers are holding up Sarkozy as a model for reinventing their own beleaguered party. Proud to have been dubbed by his critics Sarko l'Americain, the new president has been likened to John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan for his youthful verve and willingness to take on sacred cows to pull France from the economic doldrums -- powerful labor unions, big government, 35-hour workweeks, six-week vacations and cushy pension plans. He tells his people they must work harder, cut taxes and take risks.

"Imagine trying to get that past an American campaign consultant," Newt Gingrich wrote in the Washington Post last summer, one of the first to make Sarkozy an example of how to seek reelection while in the shadow of an unpopular president. He cited Sarkozy's ability to serve in the cabinet of a disliked Jacques Chirac, then define himself as an agent for change without scorning his old boss.

At the White House black-tie dinner, President Bush welcomed Sarkozy in French, saying, "Bienvenue a la Maison Blanche." Sarkozy, noting the pomp and warmth of his welcome, said one can "be a friend of America and win election in France!"

All of this friendship comes a mere four years after the cafeteria menus at three House office buildings renamed French fries "Freedom fries" (the breakfast crowd got "Freedom toast") at the behest of GOP lawmakers.

The menus were quietly changed back about a year ago; by then one of the original advocates, Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), had decided the war was a mistake after all. Ever since, GOP notables have been warming up to France in the latest chapter of a rocky 230-year romance.

But the emergence of the pro-America Sarkozy made the emotional U-turn considerably easier. He recently vacationed at Lake Winnipesaukee, which was generously described thereafter as a "chic New Hampshire resort."

Still seeking to cement his image, Sarkozy deftly avoids mention of the Iraq war, which he opposed and which remains deeply unpopular in his country. In exchange, his newfound GOP friends tend to overlook the fact that he is divorced. His voguish ex-wife Cecilia, a former fashion model, didn't vote for him in May and skipped lunch last summer at the Bushes' family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, because of a sore throat. (She was later spotted shopping.)

All of this is progress, but the rekindled amour still is not as effervescent as it was when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy inspired France to loan her and the president the Mona Lisa and had practically every Frenchman she met at her feet.

Some Republican presidential candidates have been more subtle in their endorsements than has Giuliani, who lights up at the latest Sarkozy moniker: "The French Rudy."

In an interview with New Republic magazine, Arizona Sen. John McCain praised France's use of nuclear power but prefaced the remark with: "I don't often like to imitate the French, but . . . "

And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who did his Mormon missionary work in France in the 1960s, recently referred tepidly to Sarkozy as a "potential blood brother."

Some of this newfound camaraderie is probably an attempt to undercut Democrats' claims that they will bring allies alienated by Bush back into the fold, said Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

He said France, the one country that is neither a Washington enemy nor its patsy, is a litmus test for restoring relations with Europe.

The on-again, off-again love affair began when France helped a foundering America in its revolution, yet America neglected to return the favor 14 years later when France was consumed with its own upheaval.

"If you can demonstrate that you can work well with France, then you might be able to rebut the Democrats' claim that they can deliver the world," Shapiro said.

Only a couple of years ago, when late-night talk show hosts were skewering the French with abandon over the war they didn't want to fight ("The only way the French are going in is if we tell them we found truffles in Iraq," said Dennis Miller), it seemed unthinkable that everyone would get so cozy again so soon.

But as McCain noted while campaigning in Iowa Falls, Iowa, this week, "We now have a pro-American president of France, which tells you if you live long enough. . . . "

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