Unless you are in a media-free vacuum, you know that President Barack Obama was in France this weekend for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. The ceremony to mark the beginning of the liberation of France from German occupation took place at the vast American cemetery on the bluff above Omaha Beach in Normandy, where some 132,000 Allied soldiers risked—and in many cases, sacrificed—their lives in 1944.
It was a somber event that underscored the roots of the modern French-American relationship. So it was hardly surprising that 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 was 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 was that the Obamas will be enjoying personal time in Paris, which included a dinner out, and a celebration of Sasha’s eighth 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 G-20 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 unprepared 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.
In France, these non-presidential elections often become a referendum on the sitting president, and Sarkozy has largely invited this interpretation by handpicking his party’s candidates, honing their political message, and campaigning for them. Near the midway point of his five-year term, Sarkozy’s approval rating is below 40 percent in most polls, and he is looking for a trampoline back to popularity. The opposition Socialist Party is in disarray, and thanks to a quirk of the calendar, Sarkozy, who is a remarkable campaign tactician and stage manager, had hoped that Obama’s visit could plant some powerful last-minute images in the minds of voters.
If you are wondering why on earth the French didn’t offer a formal invitation to Queen Elizabeth, note that her high-profile presence would have muddled the image of Obama and Sarkozy standing shoulder to shoulder in Normandy. But even there, the White House boxed the French leader in by publicly announcing that it was working to get Britain’s head of state invited. Prince Charles ultimately agreed to attend on the Queen’s behalf. As the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné wrote days before Obama’s arrival, “Sarkozy succeeded in a double blow: insulting Queen Elizabeth and exasperating Obama.” (Sarkozy’s people added insult to injury by asserting that the Queen was invited all along, but that unpopular British leader Gordon Brown decided to attend to salvage his own catastrophic approval ratings.)
In the end, Sarkozy won’t get as many de facto campaign stops with the Obamas as he sought, but he will get the most important one: the dramatic moments at the cemetery. At a short press event after his lunch with Obama in Caen, Sarkozy was quick to spin this turn of events. “You think that we don’t have better things to do than to take beautiful photos… while shaking hands? You think that with the economic crisis and Iran that we have nothing else to do but go to restaurants?” he said. “We are here to work and obtain results. And it isn’t hard to work with the president of the United States.”
In honor of the president’s visit, the town has adopted a new slogan: "Yes we Caen!" As far as riding Obama’s remarkable coattails into an electoral victory this week, it remains to be seen whether Sarkozy can, too.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl , which was inspired by one of his articles. He is based in Paris.