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When Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama dine privately with their spouses at the White House this evening (a first), chances are they won’t run out of topics to talk about: sanctions against Iran, troop levels in Afghanistan, the conflict in Middle East — to name a few. Not to mention both countries' dealings with Russia, the environment and economic reform — in light of the fact that France will hold both the G8 and G20 presidencies next year.
The question is whether they will both listen and hear one another — as Sarkozy, in remarks to students at Columbia University, exhorted America to do, saying that a superpower in the 21st century could not govern the world alone.
Sarkozy’s trip abroad is being described in the French press as a respite from his many troubles at home, most notably a crushing defeat of his UMP party in the country’s recent regional elections. Obama, on the other hand, is likely still reveling in the achievement of the health care bill.
A day before his Washington visit, Sarkozy spoke “frankly” and off the cuff to Columbia’s students in New York and more broadly to the American people for about 30 minutes followed by about 15 minutes of questions. He touched on matters of interest to France and the United States, like the economy and terrorism, especially in light of Monday’s attack on the Russian subway system.
But at home, where his approval ratings have sunk to about 30 percent, he was criticized for seeming to want to impart lessons to the United States, like his repeating that the U.S. dollar is not the only monetary unit in the world or how much the world needs America, the world’s leading power, to listen.
Whether people were reacting to his body language or his gesticulations, his response to a student’s question about the health care reform bill, (“Welcome to the club of countries that doesn’t just throw away sick people”) drew criticism for its air of condescension, according to at least one paper and several comments posted online by readers on various newspaper websites.
He was further criticized for seeming to take credit for the generous French social security system that he is accused of trying to dismantle with his reforms. The French president was also criticized for lacking in humility, for not being able to withstand a dig at the U.S.' expense, telling students that his country resolved the issue of universal health care more than 50 years ago and that in France, “when someone falls on a sidewalk, we don’t ask for your credit card before taking you to the hospital.” This remark came between reminders to his audience and America that he is a friend.