Before President Obama’s arrival in Paris on June 5, French president Nicolas Sarkozy offered him a formal airport greeting ceremony, an elegant dinner at the Elysée Palace and an official Saturday morning reception followed by a televised press conference -- all part of the “extraordinary welcome” that Sarkozy promised the American president.
The surprise is that Obama declined these protocol-rich invitations. Although the Obamas were photographed on Saturday being welcomed in Normandy by Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, he planned to spend most of his two-day visit back in Paris without publicly fraternizing with the French president, even though the Obamas are staying at the U.S. Ambassador’s elegant 19th century residence just 200 meters down the posh Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore from the Elysée Palace residence, where Sarkozy and his wife stay most weekends.
The French media noted the embarrassment for Sarkozy, observing that Obama has kept to a “bare minimum” his interactions with the French president. The official explanation is that the Obamas will be enjoying personal time in Paris, which includes a dinner out, and a celebration of Sasha’s 8th birthday on Sunday. But the French media have noted the embarrassment for Sarkozy, observing that Obama has kept to a “bare minimum” his interactions with the French president who would be glad to wrap the extremely popular U.S. president in a bear hug.
French commentators and Sarkozy’s political opponents are wondering how Sarkozy might have provoked this perceived "snub". Was it the tactless non-invitation to Queen Elizabeth II to the D-Day commemoration? Or Sarkozy’s attempt to snag credit for collective solutions at April’s G20 meeting on the global economic crises? Or perhaps it was Sarkozy’s snide off-the-record comments a few months back that Obama was inexperienced and unpreparation on issues such as global warming?
But on President Obama’s side, there is a sensible answer that has less to do with personal pique and more to do with politics: the French go to the polls on Sunday, June 7, to elect representatives to the European Parliament. Campaigning ended June 4, as part of a traditional “cooling-off” period, but Obama’s visit happens just as voters, concerned about la crise economique, are deciding who they will vote for, or whether they will vote at all, given that many in France aren’t particularly clear on what the EU parliament actually does.
On your marks, get set, go
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