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Report card time has just passed for the presidents of France and the United States.
Not surprisingly, their grades, in both countries, have been pretty much the classic exam notation given by French teachers to almost every student—Pourrait mieux faire. “Could (and should) do better.”
In the United States, President Barack Obama, just one year after his resounding election victory, has been increasingly criticized, among other things, for too much reflection and too little vigorous action regarding many of his election promises.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, despite his similarly triumphal election in May, 2007, is being vigorously attacked at the half way mile- stone of his five year term for, also among other things, a too autocratic, too frenetic presidential operating style and for not fulfilling his multiple presidential campaign promises, in particular the provision of more jobs and purchasing power for French citizens.
As always, it is easier for the critics to criticize than for the politicians concerned to overcome, despite their best efforts, all the bureaucratic, economic and political barriers that stand between them and accomplishment, once elected, of their stated goals.
That is particularly true in the midst of a global economic crisis that has raised unemployment levels to roughly 10 percent in both France and the United States and vastly increased the national debt in both countries.
But both Presidents Obama and Sarkozy are on the spot in great measure because they elicited so much hope as candidates that, when reality set in, voter deception has been inevitable.
In France, President Sarkozy, who was elected by some 53 percent of French voters in 2007, has had his opinion poll support plummet to under 40 percent in recent weeks although those same polls show him still to be easily the most likely victor in any new presidential election.
That judgment, however, is less due to pro-Sarkozy voter sentiment at the moment than to the lack of a designated and credible alternative candidate among France’s opposition parties.
President Obama, who was chosen by more than 52 percent of the voters in last year’s election, still retains public opinion poll support at roughly that level. However, for him too, the initial wave of “Obamania” enthusiasm that followed his election clearly has diminished.
It is perhaps not surprising that there are so many parallels in the political situations in which both Presidents find themselves. Both represent a new, younger generation of politicians. Both came to power largely because they promised or represented a refreshing break from outdated political practices.
Both have restored a degree of esteem and credibility for their countries that had been severely eroded during the previous presidencies of George W. Bush in the United States and Jacques Chirac in France.
And both have demonstrated their desire to end the chill in French-American relations that stemmed from Chirac’s determined opposition to Bush’s decision to attack Iraq.
That doesn’t mean that everything now works easily between the two presidents or the two countries.
For one thing, their presidential operating styles are strikingly different.
Sarkozy is a “doer.” His tendency essentially is to produce new initiatives and new programs and launch them quickly. If difficulties arise because his initiatives have not been sufficiently thought through, he doesn’t back off. As he admitted in one of his speeches, he believes it is essential to get things started because once they are put in the pipeline at least part of what was hoped for eventually will come out the other end.
That’s why, despite growing criticism from many of his own party’s supporters as well as his political opponents, he constantly reiterates his determination to push ahead with the reforms he espoused as a candidate.
Obama, on the other hand, operates in a more deliberative manner, seeking initial consensus when possible with a congress that institutionally has considerably more residual power to block his programs than that traditionally wielded by the French parliament regarding those proposed by a French President. That takes time.
Sarkozy has been finding that out because, oddly enough, one of the reforms he succeeded in passing has given the French parliament more blocking power and one of his problems is that, frustratingly for the President, it already is being used.
On the foreign affairs front, Sarkozy has made it abundantly clear that he wants to be a friend of the United States. Once in office he quickly sent several thousand more troops to Afghanistan to back up American and other allied forces there and put France back into the NATO command structure it had boycotted since the days of President Charles de Gaulle.
But he has made it clear that being a friend does not mean being a lackey of America and that, despite Obama’s pressure for a still greater European effort in Afghanistan, there will be no more French troop reinforcements.
Obama, meanwhile, in sharp contrast with his essentially European-oriented presidential predecessors, has demonstrated a far greater interest in mending America’s fences in Asia, where he grew up than in solidifying ties with France or even the European Union. His trip this month to Japan bears testimony
The general opinion in France seems to be that Sarkozy has realized that and adjusted to it, in particular by shifting his focus from courting Obama to stepping up his efforts to strengthen the influence of the European Union on the world stage and tighten France’s cooperation with Chancellor Angela Merkel and neighboring Germany.
Thus, where the two presidents and Franco-American relations go from here clearly remains to be determined.
The only thing certain is that, despite their current drop in the opinion polls, neither leader is in real political danger at the moment. Sarkozy has another two and a half years left on his presidential mandate and Obama has three.
That leaves a lot of time for both to stay on course, better fulfil their programs and turn public opinion around.
Will they be able to do it? Stay tuned.
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