In early 2003, after French President Jacques Chirac refused to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, several jingoistic lawmakers here urged a boycott of French wine and bottled water, and the U.S. House of Representatives cafeteria officially renamed its French fries to “freedom fries” — a move ridiculed throughout the civilized world.

Chirac’s man in Washington at the time, Jean-David Levitte, lamented the outbreak of French-bashing and told The Washington Diplomat that he wished it would go away quickly (see March 2003 cover of The Washington Diplomat).

“Our long history of friendship has been strained by many difficulties, and we are in one of these difficult periods now,” he observed. “My duty as French ambassador is to do whatever possible to try to solve this difference of views in a friendly way. My hope is that soon we’ll again be working hand in hand to promote our common values.”

Five years later, it seems Levitte has gotten his wish.

The former ambassador is now President Nicolas Sarkozy’s chief foreign policy adviser, and his successor here, Pierre Vimont, says relations between Paris and Washington couldn’t be better.

“To be honest, there is a much deeper friendship between our two countries than one can imagine. When I travel around the United States, I’m impressed everywhere I go by the francophilia that exists, even in remote places in the Midwest,” said the new French envoy, interviewed at length at his official Washington residence in the Kalorama neighborhood.

“Here and there, you may have some intellectuals [in France] who pride themselves on being anti-American, but this is a very small group of people and it seems very far from reality,” Vimont says. “I’ve met a lot of American visitors to Paris who thought they’d be greeted with anger — and they were quite surprised to find the French people very kind and open, just like in the good old days.”

And just in time too, considering that on July 1, France takes over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union from Slovenia. That’ll give Paris an especially strong voice in EU affairs as the 27-member body debates issues crucial to the United States, such as a common European defense system, the EU’s relationship with Russia, and the pros and cons of EU membership for Turkey, a major U.S. ally.

If France has suddenly gone from being our nastiest critic to our best friend in Europe, much of that should be attributed to Sarkozy himself — the hyperactive, publicity-seeking son of a Hungarian immigrant father and France’s most unabashedly pro-American leader ever.

Except for the war in Iraq, Sarkozy agrees with the Bush administration on just about every other foreign policy issue from Afghanistan, where he’s agreed to boost the size of France’s 1,600-member military contingent by 700 troops, to Zimbabwe, where he’s spoken out against the Robert Mugabe dictatorship.

“Sarko l’Américain,” as he’s been nicknamed, also supports the tough U.S. line on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he’s outspoken in his support for Israel — unlike his predecessor — and he’d like to see France rejoin the military wing of NATO after a 40-year hiatus.

“President Sarkozy is very much a man of action, with an entrepreneurial spirit. He represents a new generation, and maybe this explains why he was so eager to put the relationship between our two countries on a new course. This was, as you know, at the forefront of his priorities,” says Vimont.

“On the night of his election one year ago, he stated very clearly that he wanted to bring a new momentum to U.S.-French relations,” the ambassador adds, noting that Sarkozy has returned to the United States numerous times on official and private visits. “Even during President Chirac’s administration, the relationship had already improved after 2005, when we started to work together again on issues such as Lebanon and Iran. But the real change came when Nicolas Sarkozy took office.”

A native of Paris, Vimont speaks fluent Spanish thanks to his childhood in Mexico City (his father was France’s ambassador to Mexico, the Czech Republic and the Soviet Union). He joined the French Foreign Service in 1977 and has served in a number of diplomatic postings, including that of France’s permanent representative to the EU, a post he held from 1999 to 2002. After leaving Brussels, Vimont served as chief of staff to the French minister of foreign affairs for five years before being appointed by Sarkozy to replace Levitte in Washington. The new envoy presented his credentials to President Bush in August 2007.

Vimont acknowledged that not all his countrymen are in love with Sarkozy, but argues that criticism of the president has less to do with his foreign policy and more to do with his domestic policies and economic reform program — as evidenced by last year’s crippling public transit strikes.

“The president knew he was going to go through a period of unpopularity. It’s never easy to ask for sacrifices, but none of this is a surprise,” Vimont insists. “Mr. Sarkozy was elected on the platform of modernizing our economy and our labor market. If you look at the opinion polls, a majority of my countrymen accept that we need to modernize our economy and our labor market if we want to bring France back into the mainstream of the global economy — no matter how painful this may be.”

This includes the pain of giving up France’s beloved 35-hour workweek, deregulating the French labor market, and raising the retirement age among train drivers and other specialized state employees (it currently stands at 50, the youngest in Europe). According to the French national statistics office, in the absence of major reforms, by 2050 the national deficit is projected to balloon to 123 billion euros. It’s also estimated that government spending currently accounts for a staggering 53.7 percent of gross domestic product.

“We need to do it because it’s getting more difficult to finance our retirement pension schemes,” Vimont admits. “It’s not an enjoyable prospect, but once again, French citizens are mature. They know what it’s about, and they admit that this is necessary.”

At the same time, Vimont concedes that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a vast system of farm subsidies that costs European taxpayers more than 80 billion euros a year, must be reformed. An equally big problem facing France — indeed most of Europe — is the rapidly rising euro, which as of press time was trading at class=”import-text”>2008June.Deja Vu.txt.56. Six years ago, the euro was barely worth 95 cents.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult to produce in the euro zone and try to sell in the dollar zone,” Vimont says. “The pressure is to outsource and go outside France. You can imagine the social pressure this will cause. For months, Sarkozy has tried to catch everybody’s attention. I think by now, all our major trading partners understand that we are all trying to find the right way to proceed.”

But the single most important issue for France as it prepares to lead the European Union will not be the global economy but rather global warming.

“Any country that has the EU presidency tries to put an emphasis on priorities, and among our priorities will be climate change,” the ambassador says, noting that the Bush administration continues to resist imposing caps on emissions of greenhouse gases — an idea Brussels wholeheartedly embraces but which Bush has rejected as bad for business.

Last year, EU leaders agreed to fight climate change by building more windmills, installing solar panels, and encouraging the sale of more efficient light bulbs. Leaders also pledged that 20 percent of the bloc’s energy will come from green power by 2020. No such pledge has ever been issued by the U.S. government, which many Europeans think doesn’t take the threat of global warming seriously enough.

“We’ve played the role of honest broker regarding this issue, and we very much hope that whoever will be the new president will work with the EU toward a new international convention on climate change,” says Vimont, hinting that he doesn’t expect any miracles from the Bush administration in the interim. “We have to look at the post-Kyoto [Protocol] stage that comes up after 2009.”

Another thorny issue will be immigration, a topic with which France is all too familiar. Referring to the recently expanded Schengen Zone, a 24-country area in Europe in which EU citizens can travel freely without a passport, Vimont explains: “The Schengen Agreement has been working alright, but we must coordinate the national legislation of 27 countries and adopt a set of principles, such as rules of political asylum and what kind of immigrants we will accept [from outside the EU].”

And a key source of immigrants coming to the EU is North Africa, which is why on July 13, France will host a summit in Paris that brings together all 27 members of the EU and a dozen non-European countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, as well as Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

The proposed “Union for the Mediterranean” — to be headquartered in either Barcelona or Marseilles — aims to improve energy supply, fight pollution in the Mediterranean, strengthen the surveillance of maritime traffic, and create a scientific community between Europe and its southern neighbors. Ultimately, the long-term goal is to establish a free-trade area.

“This is President Sarkozy’s personal initiative,” Vimont points out. “Our idea is that the Barcelona process set up in 1995 [which addressed Euro-Arab economic relations] had some good results, but everybody is eager to give it a new momentum. This union is another way of pushing those ideas forward, on a true, equal basis between all the countries involved.”

Meanwhile though, the Sarkozy government is clamping down on illegal immigration at home, while at the same time allowing entry to immigrants for “job and professional purposes,” according to Vimont. Social pressure to improve living conditions for immigrants — particularly Arab Muslims from North Africa — is intense, following a violent outbreak of rioting two years ago that affected virtually every major city in France.

“Since then, we’ve been trying to find solutions,” says Vimont. “In fact, most of these people just want jobs and housing, and be able to go from one place to another. From the beginning, we wanted everybody to be equal. We think we have to go back to the principles and values of that model of integration that we launched at the beginning of the 20th century.”

At the moment, the situation is far more tense in Lebanon, a former French colony, where heavily armed Hezbollah guerrillas backed by Syria and Iran have seriously weakened the U.S.-backed government in Beirut. Fighting there has left more than 60 dead in the worst outbreak of internal violence since Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

“We’re looking at the Lebanese situation with great concern and apprehension,” says Vimont. “We are reminding Syria and other countries that they must respect Lebanon’s sovereignty, and we ask for all those people to go back to the negotiations, which have been going on for too long. We are pleading for the violence to stop.”

Conflicts in the Middle East from Lebanon to Iraq are sure to take up the EU’s attention, but the bloc will also be paying special attention to events closer to home to ensure they don’t spiral out of control — namely Kosovo, which seems to have peacefully made the transition to independence despite fierce opposition from Serbia and Russia.

“We also want Serbia to have increased relations with the EU,” says Vimont, whose country did not hesitate to recognize Kosovo’s independence on Feb. 17, angering Serbs. “We have decided we’d negotiate with them a special stabilization agreement, but we’re very adamant that they have to comply with the International Court of Justice.”

Regarding Russia, “they don’t share the same views as European countries, but what we find is that even if they criticized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, they haven’t tried to stop the dialogue.”

“We’re trying to get an agreement among the 27 members so we can negotiate with Russia and improve our relations with them,” Vimont adds, indicating that under French leadership, these EU talks will focus on Russian gas exports to energy-hungry Western Europe. “We also wish for a dialogue between Chinese authorities and the leaders of Tibet, including the Dalai Lama,” he notes. “Mr. Sarkozy has been very public in his wish that such a dialogue could be opened.

But further EU enlargement beyond the current 27 members probably won’t be high on France’s docket. In fact, one area in which Paris and Washington clearly disagree is Turkey’s aspirations to become a full-fledged member of the EU. Sarkozy has publicly ridiculed the idea as “nonsense,” though Vimont is far more diplomatic in describing the two allies’ differences.

“The United States is in favor of Turkey becoming a member of the EU. We, on the contrary, think we should go for a special relationship between Turkey and the EU, but not full membership.”

For one thing, he says, “most of Turkey’s territory is not in Europe, and secondly, Turkey’s large population could create a problem for Europe if Turkey becomes a member. Most of France is against [full] membership. Therefore, we should try to find a special relationship that stops just short of full membership.”

But Vimont promised that “France, as president of the EU, will do everything necessary to keep those negotiations going on.”

Alas, no conversation about France or Sarko could be complete without mentioning — at least in passing — the president’s new wife, Italian supermodel-turned-pop singer Carla Bruni. The two were quietly married in Paris in February, less than four months after the president divorced his second wife, Cécilia.

Polls indicate that many French people were irritated by their president’s very public romance with the 40-year-old Bruni. But Vimont insists that’s not the case, calling Sarkozy’s love life completely irrelevant.

“French citizens are usually not very interested in the private lives of their leaders. If today there’s criticism of the government, it’s mostly about its policies and reforms, and not really about the private life of the president or anybody else,” he told us. “In fact, now that the president has married again and France has a new first lady, she’s rather popular.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.