President Barack Obama and visiting French President François Hollande said in a rare joint op-ed published Monday that the world benefits from a France-U.S. alliance that “is being made new again.” But they didn’t give any credit to George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy, who did most of the work to repair a relationship that soured in the run-up to the Iraq War.
Obama and Hollande, writing in the Washington Post, declared that “a decade ago, few would have imagined our two countries working so closely together in so many ways.”
That’s undeniably true. The period from 2002-2004 was a poisonous time in Franco-American relations. France fiercely opposed the invasion of Iraq. Angry American conservatives, turning to "The Simpsons" for inspiration, denounced the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” On Air Force One, the official breakfast menus included “freedom toast” rather than French toast. In the House of Representatives cafeteria, “freedom fries” replaced french fries.
And covering the Bush White House for Agence France-Presse sometimes brought me face to face with anti-French sentiments.
One member of the White House press corps boasted to me in early 2003 that he had bought a case of French wine in order to pour it down a sewer, apparently unclear on how a boycott works (hint: If the French vineyard gets your money, you have failed). Two colleagues at rival news services came to find me one morning to warn that a senior Bush aide had bragged that he would make my life miserable.
At Agence France-Presse, we joked we should change our name to Agence Freedom-Presse. Over at The New York Times, which rarely misses an opportunity to knock the French, foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman harrumphed that France had ceased to be merely “our annoying ally” or “our jealous rival” and was now “becoming our enemy.”
But even during this ugly period, the two countries cooperated on counterterrorism policy, and French troops continued to serve as part of the coalition in Afghanistan. By June 2004, Bush was insisting that relations were “excellent” and publicly marveling at how many cheeseburgers France’s then-president, Jacques Chirac, could eat in one sitting.
By September 2004, the two leaders had joined forces to help drive Syria’s roughly 14,000 troops and intelligence agents out of Lebanon — a major bilateral diplomatic push.
On a personal level, Bush and Chirac never really got along. The French president got a warm welcome when he became the first world leader to visit the White House after the attacks of September 11. Chirac was fluent in English — but his habit of lecturing American officials behind closed doors irked Bush and his team.
Then came Nicolas Sarkozy — avowedly pro-American, though far from fluent in English. In private, Bush fondly described the hot-tempered Sarkozy as a “blaster,” someone given to passionate outbursts behind the scenes.
The public breakup of Hollande’s relationship with Valerie Trierweiler may have caused some headaches for Obama aides planning the state dinner to be held Tuesday — but Sarkozy, too, came stag to the White House for a lavish official dinner in November 2007, one month after his divorce.
That symbolic meal served to cement the steady improvement in relations after the Iraq war, with Bush even attempting a bit of French: “Bienvenue a la Maison Blanche.”
“Our peoples resemble one another, and they admire each other. And that is precisely why they have this strong bond, an impassioned relation which is not simple, but it is always beautiful,” Sarkozy responded in French. “And I also came to say that one can be a friend of America, and yet win elections in France.”
Several people at the dinner made a point of telling me how glad they were to be able to like France publicly again because it was their favorite vacation spot.
Hollande, who beat Sarkozy in a run-off election in May 2012, quickly underlined that he spoke English “more fluently than the former president.” He also promised to chart an independent course for France “without making things difficult for Barack Obama.”
The two leaders again found transatlantic common ground on Syria, with Hollande taking at least as hawkish a line as Obama — and suffering a domestic setback when the White House decided to hold off on a military strike pending congressional approval.
Hollande’s much-publicized affair with actress Julie Gayet led to the collapse of his relationship with Trierweiler, a journalist. Obama aides scrambled to rearrange the state dinner seating chart, though it’s not known who will get the spot that France’s former first lady would have taken.
And Hollande will be the first French president since 1958 not to address a joint session of Congress during a state visit to Washington.
The joint Obama/Hollande op-ed papered over rifts over NSA spying on Europeans and a recent scolding from Secretary of State John Kerry to French firms eager to resume business in Iran. And it made no mention of the work Bush and Sarkozy did to repair relations — a job essentially done by the November 2007 dinner.
Instead, the two leaders congratulated themselves for “a world that is more secure because our enduring alliance is being made new again.”