Paris Lights: Hot Dogs & Hamburgers for Sarkozy in Kennebunkport

French media reactions to Saturday's lunch at Kennebunkport have been centered on hot dogs & hamburgers, the absence of Madame Sarkozy, disagreement over the war in Iraq, and the difference between Chirac, persona non grata, and Sarkozy, greeted with a smile and a tap on the shoulder. Press coverage has been thin here in the August doldrums. The three national papers--Le Figaro, Le Monde, Libération-don't have Sunday editions. Their online news on the Bush-Sarkozy luncheon is hardly up to date-mostly warmed-over articles written before the meeting actually took place, plus background material focused that chews over old hassles between France and the United States, obscuring the brand new and undeniably friendly relations celebrated during the "pique-nique" (they don't know from cookout).

TV and radio coverage of the event was minimal. The luncheon was mentioned briefly on radio newscasts, systematically introduced with a snide remark about Cécilia's absence due to an unidentified illness--sometimes described as "diplomatic," rarely and reluctantly defined as strep throat-followed by heavy emphasis on the hot dogs & hamburgers. The juxtaposition of illness and hot dogs left room for nasty minds to imagine a snobbish French Cécilia wriggling out of a horrible American pique-nique. The luncheon and all it implies was summed up in 3-minute bytes on Saturday evening and Sunday noon TV newscasts that inevitably began by dimming the image of the warm Bush-Sarkozy greeting with a snide voice-off on Cécilia's absence. A few seconds of the president-to-president dialogue about how friends can disagree with each other was followed by a heavy dose of hot dogs & hamburgers before cutting through the lake in the Bush speedboat. The brief reports ended with quotes from the stabbing reactions of Pierre Moscovici (see below). The story was off the radar by Sunday evening, except for a short-short take on TF1, focused on Cécilia's alleged rapid recovery.

That leaves the Journal de Dimanche, an insipid Sunday-only paper just big enough to cover a skimpy café and croissant breakfast. Here's their coverage as if you were there:

Front page, above the fold--President Sarkozy in Raybans on the motorboat flanked by the elder and the younger Bush. The headline--The French judge Sarkozy-could swing any way the reader is inclined. The subtitle mentions a strong approval rating, immediately dampened by an "except for" and then strangled by "interviews with Raffarin and Moscovici." Under the fold, a story about retired soccer hero Zidane and other light fare.

Page 2: Charts showing extraordinarily high approval ratings for president Sarkozy, measure for measure, are illustrated with a cartoon by Wolinski, a popular left-wing satirist. Bush and Sarkozy are in a boat called American Dream. The American president is reclining, the French president is rowing. Bush says "My dear Nicolas, at bottom we agree. The poor are pitiful. Intellectuals are horrible. Only the rich are fit to be seen with. Sarkozy replies: "We're really in the same boat, dear George." (I'm not kidding, my translation is faithful... the cartoon is really that mediocre!)

Below the fold: an interview with ex-Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose record was less than brilliant. But Raffarin did stand with Sarkozy during the presidential campaign, so he apparently was chosen as a pro-Sarko, to balance out Moscovici's supercilious vitriol. Raffarin grants Sarkozy the merit of his uninhibited manners that are clearly appreciated by the French today but he warns against undue friendship with the United States. "Even though dialogue with the great powers necessarily goes through the United States it must also be engaged with the rest of the world, notably with the South. We share common values with the Americans but we must be vigilant, our message is different: globalization the American way is a unique system, globalization the European way is a multipolar system. The world must hear the voice of France in Asia, in the Arab world, and elsewhere."

Page 3, above the fold: From left to right--G.W. Bush, Sarkozy, Bush Sr., and Barbara...all captured in awkward poses on the lawn. Under the photo: "Cécila, ill, misses the rendez- vous at Walker's Point." The illustration plus the report from JDD correspondent Guillemette Faure take up two thirds of the page, while Moscovici waits in a dark alley at the bottom.

It begins with: "Cécilia did not show up." And goes on to say that she'd been seen in the past few days, shopping in the streets of Wolfeboro, sunbathing... But Sarkozy says she has strep throat. After explaining that the invitation was originally extended from First Lady to First Lady when they met at the G8 the correspondent gets down to the hot dogs and hamburgers. Not, jokes G.W., the local specialty...lobster.

The French president arrives a half hour late, jumps out of his SUV, and starts talking about Franco-American friendship all the way back to Lafayette. "George W. Bush laps it up. His approval rating is rock bottom. At the Boston airport they sell meters that count the number of minutes remaining to his term, and t-shirts displaying the date when he'll leave office. He's lost his allies one by one in the past few years-the Brit Tony Blair, the Spaniard José Aznar, the Italian Silvio Berlusconi. And suddenly this blatant display of friendship from France, the country that four years ago was considered to be a bad ally.

A paragraph on foreign relations touches on the disagreement over Iraq, the partnership on Lebanon, the fact that friends can disagree. The correspondent takes a jibe at Sarkozy, claiming that President Bush tried to get him to the table but Sarkozy went on and on, talking about the white crosses on the Normandy coast, the GIs who "died for us." And adds, "France, like the United States, is the friend of democracies, not dictatorships."

Then the correspondent explains that G.W. had practically shunned Bush Sr., who left office at a low point, but drew closer to him when his own ratings went down. He implies that Bush Sr. is running the show these days on important matters like international relations.

The article closes with: "Anti-war demonstrators stand at the end of the road leading to the Bush residence. 'I'm exasperated to imagine the pictures of Bush waving from his boat while we're at war,' declares Jamilla El Shafei, the organizer [of the demonstration], referring to Jacques Chirac's refusal to take part in the Iraqi conflict." [I can't vouch for what she said in English...the French was obviously a bad translation.] These disagreements, says the correspondent, are a thing of the past. Bush says he'd be willing to vacation in France. Especially if he could do some mountain biking.

Just below the fold, a second photo, more disgraceful than all the others. Nicolas Sarkozy (don't forget, he's half Hungarian) is "kissing" Barbara Bush's hand... properly, without vulgar lip to skin contact. But the head of George W. Bush, who is standing behind Sarkozy appears awkwardly, as if joined at the neck to Sarkozy's bent head, and Barbara Bush is shown in a rear view that no decent photo editor would print.

At the bottom of the page, Socialist leader Pierre Moscovici reacts to the Kennebunkport meeting. Aaaargh!

Was it appropriate for President Sarkozy to have lunch with George Bush? For Moscovici it was a PR stunt. "Nicolas Sarkozy is inspired more by John Kennedy than by Général de Gaulle."

But should he make a public display of his affinity for such a discredited end-of-term president? Cautioning that it is just as stupid to be anti-American as it is to blindly follow the American president, Moscovici gives Bush the knife. "This president has committed an enormous amount of mistakes and it would be a grave error [he uses the word "faute," which is closer to sin] to display ostensible friendship or overdue indulgence for him. Nicolas Sarkozy should transmit messages of extreme severity. Ten days ago, British PM Gordon Brown strikingly and forcefully marked his differences with the American president....The French president should do at least as much. It would truly be paradoxical to find ourselves today with France lining up behind a discredited President Bush just when Great Britain is backing off.

How does Moscovici explain Sarkozy's fascination for the United States? Moscovici analyzes the political underpinnings-in 2006 Sarkozy fought to get a photo-op with Bush and markedly denounced the arrogance of Chirac's opposition to the US in 2003. During the campaign Sarkozy toned it down. So which is the real Sarkozy? The unconditional Atlanticist or a president who will maintain the French policy of independence from the United States?

What strong message would Moscovici expect from a self-respecting French president to a devaluated American one? First, he should repeat that the war in Iraq is a historical mistake and the troops should be withdrawn (Gordon Brown did it). Then, he should take a strong position on human rights, notably at Guantanamo, and attempt to reach mutual positions on important international issues, such as the WTC.

Is Moscovici troubled by the star-system orchestration of the president's junkets? Of course it's not to his taste. But what can you expect from Nicolas Sarkozy? He's overdoing it. The French are still in a stage of indulgence but this ostentatious behavior will eventually arouse their suspicions.

Back to page 2. The charts. Now that you know what the media are thinking, saying, showing, and gaggling, how about a look at what the French people think?

On legislation passed since Sarkozy became president, at his instigation:

SatisfiedDissatisfiedNo opinion
Partial tax deduction of mortgage interest87171
Imposed minimum sentence for repeat-offenders84151
Liberation of Bulgarian nurses in Libya80191
Minimum service [in case of strikes] in public transportation72271
Income and payroll tax-free overtime pay 66331
50% ceiling on total taxation of income and property 64351
Mini-treaty for EU 61354
Autonomy of universities 58348
Non-replacement of 22,000 civil servants at retirement 38611

On the future of Franco-American Relations

"You know that Nicolas Sarkozy and George Bush are meeting on Saturday. Personally, what is your preference?"

TotalSocialist CampUMP Camp
Relations between France and the US 332845
Should grow closer
Relations between the two countries should remain as is 404041
France's relations with the US should be more distant 263213
No opinion 1--1

Opinion on the style of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency

"Since he was elected, Nicolas Sarkozy has been in the forefront on most issues. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with this way of governing?"

Total Socialist Camp UMP Camp
Satisfied 644793
Dissatisfied 36537
No opinion ------

Conclusion? We talk about the French, we talk about French media, but in fact the French, writ large, don't have any media. Nothing that was written, said, or shown about President Sarkozy's warm visit with the extended Bush family in the relaxed vacation atmosphere of Kennebunkport reflects the way the French people as a whole feel about this positive upturn in Franco-American relations. I closely followed the lugubrious saga of Yasser Arafat's agony in the French military hospital, which was covered with uncritical indulgence and bald-faced lies from government and media working hand in hand. Jacques Chirac's moving hour-long visit with the unrepentant jihadi was described in fictitious detail when informed sources were reporting that Arafat was already dead and rotting. And now, when a highly popular president expresses heartfelt sympathy for a great democracy, the US of A, the media can't find enough ways to scribble on the picture? Don't worry, you'll hear that Sarkozy has a hammerlock on them. But you won't know why. It's because they didn't tear the picture up and throw in the garbage, instead of just scribbling on it.

Natalie Nougayrède, the Monde journalist who published the base-line interview with Saif al Islam Ghaddafi about the liberation of the Libyan hostages, since refuted in its most important details, did a hatchet job op-ed on Sarkozy's foreign policy, to coincide with the luncheon at the Bush residence. She claims that Sarkozy's way of grabbing the limelight on affairs where his role was minor if not totally insignificant irritates some of France's European partners...Germany for example. Their resentment was exacerbated by the episode of the Bulgarian nurses. Everything indicates that Sarkozy tried to upstage Angela Merkel on the international scene. The encounter with George Bush puts the finishing touch on this image of Sarkozy the upstart.

And as if that weren't enough, the French media stubbornly refused to reveal the full menu of the Sarkozy-Bush luncheon. Hot dogs & hamburgers they said, and you imagined two pathetic buns on a paper plate, period. Finally, le Monde, citing a Los Angeles Times article, gave a more ample version of the meal-hot dogs & hamburgers, yes, but also corn on the cob, green beans, and blueberry pie! I bet there was some coleslaw too. Maybe watermelon? Well, Yankees, let me tell you something; you can't get a good hot dog in France, corn on the cob is rare and rarely good, and blueberries cost a fortune. You'd have to be a millionaire to buy enough to make a whole pie. And then again, we're talking about Maine. Maybe it was huckleberry pie. The French don't even have a word for huckleberries.

So, my friends, that's how it was reported over here. Mainly mean and stingy. But don't think you're friends with yourselves alone. There are a whole lot of French people over here who would be glad to share hot dogs & hamburgers with you...if only they could get a word in edgewise.

PS: We have no way of knowing if the culinary warning issued by Roger Simon on August 2nd was heeded. French media are too busy looking down Cécilia's throat to check out what's cooking in the kitchen of the zillion dollar Wolfeboro vacation cottage.