Opposites, Obama and Sarkozy Attract, If Uneasily

Before Mr. Obama could begin discussing the next steps, Mr. Sarkozy, who had argued furiously to persuade his reluctant American ally to begin airstrikes on the forces of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, interrupted him. “Stop,” Mr. Sarkozy said, according to Obama administration officials. “Barack, I just want to tell you that I am proud to be your friend. I am proud of what we are doing.”

Mr. Obama does not speak French, so he reached for Spanish. “Nicolas,” he said, “you and I are muy simpático.”

The reality is a little less sunny. The two men brush up against each other as often as not. One is diminutive and often emotional, given to pounding on tables and gesturing with his hands to make a point, tugging on his lapel when he struts into a room. In contrast to his demeanor, he dresses like an undertaker, in dark suits and dark ties.

The other is tall, lanky and poker-faced, rarely given to emotional displays; he enters a room and wants to get straight to the point. He favors brightly colored ties in blue, red and orange.

Mr. Sarkozy is a right-leaning (by European standards) law-and-order conservative who is increasingly unpopular in France, which normally leans left. And the French left lionizes Mr. Obama, a Democrat who still has a high approval rating — in France, if not in the United States.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama raised many eyebrows here in Cannes at the Group of 20 economic summit meeting when he joked that he was confident that Giulia — Mr. Sarkozy’s newborn daughter with his wife, the Italian-born Carla Bruni-Sarkozy — “inherited her mother’s looks rather than her father’s, which I think is an excellent thing.” Mr. Sarkozy smiled, but the Gallic blogosphere was not amused.

While Mr. Sarkozy admires Mr. Obama, he also considers him “cold,” he has often said, and he resented not having been invited to Washington until long after his German and British counterparts. But the two presidents have worked at their relationship, with Mr. Obama finally inviting Mr. Sarkozy and Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy to a private dinner at the White House in March 2010.

Both men are facing difficult re-election battles. Mr. Sarkozy’s test comes more than six months before Mr. Obama’s, with the first round in late April.

If the euro crisis has been an increasingly annoying drag on the American economy, and on Mr. Obama’s re-election hopes, it has proved a mixed blessing for Mr.

Sarkozy. Always energetic, impatient and quick-witted, he is liked best by the French when he is mastering a crisis.

His main presidential rival, François Hollande of the Socialist Party, leads in the polls, but he has never been a cabinet minister. Mr. Hollande, however, has been careful to be vague on most policy goals. He is effectively immune from being attacked as a hard-left ideologue.

So Mr. Sarkozy has been presenting himself, at the Group of 20 meeting, during the Libyan uprising and in the euro crisis, as the man of the moment, whose talents and leadership fit the challenges in a way his opponents could never match.

In that sense, his partnership with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is vital because the two are seen as driving Europe’s response to the economic crisis.

But dragging Mrs. Merkel into a gradually larger role for Germany and European institutions has been hard work. In the nickname for the French-German couple — “Merkozy” — lies the rub. Mrs. Merkel figuratively wears the pants in the couple; no one speaks of them as “Sarkel.”

Mr. Sarkozy complained at a news conference about the responsibilities of the job, trying to manage the euro as well as France. “It’s not a very pleasant position to be in power right now,” he said. “But it is a necessary one.”
Mr. Hollande criticized Mr. Sarkozy on Friday, describing him as a “facilitator” rather than “a real player in financial regulation.”

“Europe appears in a position of weakness,” Mr. Hollande said. “The responsibility is in the governance of the euro zone for the last 18 months, that’s to say, Mr. Sarkozy and Mrs. Merkel.” NYT