Focus on the frill
Try as he might, French President Nicolas Sarkozy still manages to attract the wrong kind of attention. Despite much talk of "re-présidentialisation" and "déblingblingation" (l'Académie Francaise must have to work overtime on travesties done to the purity of the French language since his coming to power) after his party's chastisement at the recent municipal polls, it's so hard to get the press to focus on the serious stuff.
Much of the pre-visit coverage in France and in Britain centered on the importance of royal protocol, especially etiquette in the presence of the Queen. Speak only when spoken to by Her Majesty, and by all means, don't go touching Her, even if it the President's natural tendency to slap male and female heads of state on the back, or at least apply an affectionate rub. My wife swears she's going to write a letter to Madame Sarkozy (mommy), who might be the only hope of getting him to sit still and behave (the previous link describes his fidgety behavior as "Tigger-like"). At least she accompanied him (as did his wife and new mother-in-law) as chaperon on the visit.
Now that the state visit is more than halfway finished, today's consensus is that no major faux pas were committed. That may be so, but then the French public was spared - in what is either a return to some of the old self-censorship or fear of more Presidential lawsuits - the spectacle of The First Lady's photo (wonderfully captioned "Mrs. Starker-zy") au naturel in yesterday's "The Sun," that newspaper of records ("Bloke To Be a Mum") of the London tabloid press. This being a G-rated blog, you'll have to find that link yourselves.
As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather focus on the substance of the visit. Like Sarkozy's address to Parliament on Wednesday, covered brilliantly by The Guardian's Simon Hoggart in "One Is Not Amused. But The Rest Are Wowed"
He loves us. He adores us. He reveres us! Listening to Nicolas Sarkozy address Parliament yesterday was like being underneath a torrent of crème Chantilly sprayed from a high-pressure hose.
I believe I detect a pattern, and I'm not the only one. Just as he did in his state visit to Washington last November, Sarkozy has a tendency to "flirt" with the hosts (his speech to Congress evoked many of the same button-pushing themes of gratitude for American interventions in World Wars I and II, saving France and Europe from German domination). Again, Simon Hoggart:
He actually said "thank you" for the liberation! Previous French presidents have implied that events in Normandy were mere skirmishes while the French got on with the job of throwing off the German yoke.
But Mr Sarkozy could not thank us enough. Grateful? It was surprising that he didn't grab the Speaker round his legs to thank him personally for everything his forebears had done. France would never forget - never! She would never forget the English blood, Scottish blood, Welsh blood, not forgetting the Irish blood. They would never forget the welcome given in London to General de Gaulle (something which seemed to slip the General's own mind quite quickly). "France will never forget because it has no right to forget!"
Meanwhile, Stealth Defense Reintegration
Which leads me - finally - to the serious stuff. Just as Sarkozy underlines British and American sacrifices for France, he also stresses the importance of France in matters of defense, especially in international interventions. The Anglo-French connection is especially important in matters of defense, as Sarkozy will continue to stress as France approaches its European Union Presidency in a few months.
Sarkozy used the London visit to announce his intention to send additional French troops to Afghanistan. This, from the BBC's website:
He did not say how many soldiers he was thinking of sending - according to Nato figures, France currently has 1,515 soldiers in Afghanistan.
The BBC's diplomatic correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, says there have always been suspicions in London and Washington that France wants to undermine Nato and the trans-Atlantic partnership, but, he says, President Sarkozy is in the process of changing that impression.
Changing impressions not only in Washington and London, but in France itself. Last week's "Envoye Special," French TV's flagship documentary program, carried a segment on French combat troops fighting alongside American forces in Afghanistan. Many French, if questioned on France and NATO, would have no idea that France in fact never left the organization. Such was the impact of De Gaulle's withdrawal from NATO's military command in 1967, and the consequent move of the alliance's headquarters to Brussels, that most French began to believe that NATO = U.S., therefore not anything to do with France.
This process of bringing the French public along on reintegration into the West's defense structures is of necessity one of gentle nudging, accompanied by occasional bold leaps forward. At the same time as France reminds Washington and London of its contributions, present and future, the Sarkozy/Fillon government is also looking at budgetary and personnel cuts in the French military, still Europe's largest. If Sarkozy can triangulate this renewed French defense activism with plans to streamline France's somewhat overpopulated armed forces and find economies of scale through joint Franco-British armaments programs, he may be able to pull it off with the French public.
But he has to stay serious. And consider taking Ritalin.