Who's Coming to a White House Dinner Next Week – from France?

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By Axel Krause, Contributing Editor

March 23, 2010

She is 42, glamorous, svelte, a successful pop singer-composer, formerly a top model, divorced, and reportedly wants to act in Woody Allen’s next film. She is also France’s first lady, who will be the fourth at a private dinner party at the White House March 30, hosted by President and Mrs. Barrack Obama, along with her husband, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.

But she, French-Italian Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, may overshadow some of the interest and media coverage, as she is viewed by many as Europe’s version of Jacqueline Kennedy.

Informal dinner talk will probably cover interests both first ladies actively pursue, such as humanitarian causes, French-Amercan relations, and their experiences as wives of powerful leaders; earlier in the day, Obama and Sarkozy will have discussed heavier, controversial international issues, followed by a joint news conference.

The French conservative leader, who for nearly a year has quietly pressed for a meeting of this kind with Obama, will be projecting the image of a determined, reform-bent president and world leader. Both in Washington and the day before in New York where he will address the financial community.

The visits, however, will come in the wake of his shattering, major defeat and of his UMP Party in regional elections March 21, amid speculation that he may be challenged by other conservatives for his party’s nomination in 2012. They face a near-stagnant economy, record unemployment, governmental deficits and a deep, widespread mood of discontent and labor strikes over his failure to implement economic and social reforms promised during his successful presidential campaign in 2007.

And that despondent mood among many French men and women, particularly jobless youth, coincides with the growing appeal of leftist parties, who won 54.1% of the nation’s regional votes, notably the Socialist Party, led by its current leader, Martine Aubry, the outspoken, dynamic daughter of former European Commission President, Jacques Delors.

Meantime, Obama, once again being acclaimed by most Europeans as a strong world leader following his successful drive for health care reform, is expected to defuse the simmering tensions and annoyance over his alleged indifference to the European Union and trans-Atlantic relations. That was triggered by the White House cancellation of an E.U.-U.S. meeting in Madrid scheduled for late May. (Current Columns February 12)

Specifically, though no details have yet been announced, by the White House and the Elysée Palace, Obama is expected to seek Sarkozy’s support for enhanced military engagement in Afghanistan; combining tough sanctions against Iran for its nuclear buildup, with diplomatic pressure for compliance with a freeze on the military component of the buildup; engaging France and perhaps Britain for a cooperative stance on relaunching the Middle East peace process; coordinating efforts to restore economic growth to the world economy as France prepares to chair the G20 group of countries next year, and, as a supporter of Greece, to back France’s flexible approach to helping Greece solve its debt crisis, in sharp contrast to German Chancellor Anglea Merkel’s resistance to any form of an E.U. Bailout, which most European leaders favor, along with the International Monetary Fund.

And there may well be some talk about over the recent failure of EADS, Europe’s largest aerospace company to win a $35-billion contract for supplying the U.S. Air Force with a new aerial refueling tanker, in partnership with Northrop Grumman; the Pentagon awarded the contract, for smaller plane, to Boeing, amid allegations from the French government, among others in Europe, that the deal had been rigged. Fillon immediately termed the latest decision protectionist, and Sarkozy announced he would raise the subject with Obama.

Commenting on next weeks’s meetings, a senior U.S. diplomat told TransAtlantic that the administration hope is to “smoothe things over, revitalizing trans-Atlantic relations, showing the alliance is together, with shared commitment to promoting peace, security and prosperity around the world…these two leaders need each other.”

The same could be said of the Sarkozy couple, who first met in November 2007, given that he is not exactly well-known to most Americans, and that she is sure to attract attention. Some journalists may even ask about the widespread reports, notably in the British media, about their alleged extra-marital affairs, that both have denied,  but she in a more nuanced way.

Recently, asked by a reporter from Britain’s Sky News if she had confidence in her husband’s faithfulness, she replied that yes, “he would never cheat on me…have you ever seen photos of him with a mistress?” The reporter said no. “Alors,” she replied, meaning: you see? She has also told reporters, shocking some, that, in her view, marriage is not necessarily forever. In another break with French tradition, she created her own web site – www.carlabrunisarkozy.org/fr

Leaving aside Obama’s hopes and plans for re-election in 2012, questions and speculation over France’s presidential and legislative elections that same year have already surfaced. Considering that Sarkozy’s UMP won only 35.4% of the vote Sunday, with the Socialists and allies scoring their highest since 1981, it is no surprise that many conservatives are, for the first time, openly questioning Sarkozy’s ability to successfully confront a united, coalition of Socialists and other leftists, notably the charismatic leader of the Europe Ecology coalition party, growing in popularity, Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

Who might replace Sarkozy from within his ranks? Few political observers doubt that  because of his conservative, lower-key, and dapper appearance and style and that he has served for the past three years as prime minister, the choice would be Francois Fillon. And though just prior to his party’s defeat in the regional elections, many speculated that he would either be dropped, or resign, Fillon on Monday emerged as Sarkozy’s calm, hard-hitting government leader, who assumed his part in the failure, confirming that he and his government would carry on, with little or no change in direction.

Once a racing car driver, with a British wife, several children, whose base is in the rural Sarthe region, he was described as “chic and classic”  and “waterproof” in a recent cover story in the weekly news magazine, Le Point, headlined “Le President Fillon” stating that based on their recent survey, 42% of French conservatives prefer Fillon over all other UMP candidates, assuming Sarkozy doesn’t run. These might well include former, Dominique de Villepin, previously both foreign and prime minister under Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and who has announced he is creating his own conservative party, widely expected to challenge Sarkozy.

Meantime, appearing radiant, confident and determined, Aubry, as first secretary of the Socialist Party, has made it clear she will lead the opposition with other leftist parties in the runup to the 2012 elections. France’s leading daily Le Monde noted that, in the wake of the regional elections, she hopes to emerge as “the natural candidate” for the presidency, pressing with an ambitious leftist agenda, including tax reform and policies aimed at creating jobs. That role, however, will only be determined by a party primary in the second half of next year in which other Socialists are expected to run as well.

Most prominent among them, a familiar face in Washington, is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former Socialist finance and economy minister and currently managing director of  the International Monetary Fund, whose ambitions probably include running, but, like Aubry, has declined to say so publically. According to a widely-circulated non-confirmed report,  what Le Monde describes as an informal “non-aggression pact” has been agreed to by the powerful, popular duo and another former Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius, pledging that whoever is ahead in polls prior to the primary, will get the support of the other two.

And while polls and surveys have limitations, particularly with long lead times, Le Point reported that, based on its poll of late February, if Fillon is the UMP candidate in 2012,  he would beat both Aubry (47%-31%) and the previous Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal. (57%-23%) But Fillon would lose to D-SK, as he is known. (34%-46%)

Maybe. But given the volatile nature of the French electorate and events – an anti-Sarkozy trade union-led strike today disrupted the nation’s rail and school system –  the future remains cloudy. Particularly since only 46.3% of eligible French  voters went to the polls in the second and final round of the regional elections on Sunday.

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