US President Barack Obama (R) meets with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Oval Office in Washington, January 10, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]
WASHINGTON - With bilateral ties between their states marked by ups and downs, US President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday tried to show their tender sides of solidarity and friendship, at least in personal relations.
"I'm very grateful to have my dear friend, Nicolas Sarkozy, here," Obama said in his opening remarks at a meeting with the press after bilateral talks at the White House. "We don't have a stronger friend and a stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people."
Though France is seen as the US' oldest ally, bilateral ties have been witnessing decades of ups and downs, which plummeted to an all-time low in 2003 due to France's stiff opposition to the US invasion of Iraq.
Since Sarkozy took over as president in May 2007, France-US relations have been on the steady mend. It is his second visit to Obama's Oval Office in less than one year, but their first meeting since the leak of sensitive US diplomatic cables by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, in which Sarkozy was lauded for his pro-American stance and his pragmatism, but branded as "erratic and touchy" with a complex private life.
"We have cooperated over the last several years on dealing with a global economic crisis, dealing with the challenges of terrorism, dealing with a range of geopolitical issues from the Middle East to Iran to Afghanistan," Obama said about his French guest. "And I 've always found Nicolas to be an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend to the American people, as well as a leader on the world stage."
He drew laughter by saying "I just want to say how much I appreciate not only Nicolas' friendship but also his leadership. And I also want to point out that the last time that Nicolas and his lovely wife Carla were here we sent them to Ben's Chili Bowl."
When they last visited Washington in late March 2010, Sarkozy and his wife were taken to have lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl, where Obama had his first meal several days before his inauguration in January 2009. They had half-smokes there, a local sausage delicacy.
This time, US First Lady Michele Obama handled distaff diplomacy by having a private lunch with her French counterpart at the White House, while their husbands had working lunch alone, talking about other issues including the Afghanistan war, Iran's nuclear program, the Middle East peace process, political standoff in Cote d'Ivoire, the Sudan referendum and Lebanon.
"I can't say that half-smokes will be on the menu here at the White House -- the First Lady is having lunch with Carla while Nicolas and I have a working lunch, but I hope you find the hospitality outstanding nevertheless," Obama said to Sarkozy at their meeting with the press. They did not have lunch until after the meeting.
"And on behalf of the American people, we want to again express our friendship to the French people and wish everybody in your country a happy new year," Obama added.
In his turn, Sarkozy said: "I've always been a great friend, a tremendous friend of the United States, and I know how important a role the US plays in the world, how important the US dollar is as the world's number one currency."
"I want to thank Barack Obama, my host, for his show of leadership, and also point out that something that has always struck me about him, is his ability to get to the fundamentals, the root of issues, the root causes of things," the French president added. "I appreciate his openness, the way he speaks very frankly about things with me."