The French president may rue the day he thought up this photo-op, says Anne-Elisabeth MoutetAs Nicolas Sarkozy prepares for the hardest-won photo-op of his presidency – the D-Day commemorations on the Normandy beaches, starring Barack Obama, with the Prince of Wales and Gordon Brown as last-minute supporting players – he could be forgiven for thinking himself ill-used. What started as a mid-scale, bilateral event at the American military cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer (which is US soil, donated by France in perpetuity) has been successively targeted by the big guns of the Daily Mail, Downing Street, Sarkozy's socialist opposition, and the White House Communications Office.
Admittedly, Sarko's own intentions weren't entirely selfless. Yes, he is the first president since de Gaulle to pay constant and sincere homage to veterans of the Second World War and La Résistance (he was brought up by his arch-Gaullist maternal grandfather, a Jewish physician who was banned from practising during the Nazi occupation and had to go into hiding). But Sarkozy is also very aware that in the run-up to the European elections, held tomorrow over here, Obama is the ultimate arm-candy, a little touch of Yes-We-Can on the hustings.
A year ago, when Obama, still on the campaign trail, had just given his Berlin speech, Sarko invited him for a joint press conference at the Elysée, deploying all the ceremony usually reserved for heads of state. The two were bestest buddies, joking that they had reconciled their two countries after the froideur of George W Bush, Jacques Chirac and "freedom fries".
But since that golden moment – in fact, since Obama's election victory – the most pro-American French president ever has been snubbed. In vain did Sarko angle, time and again, for an invitation to Washington (he would have loved those DVDs that Gordon brought home). In vain did he plea for a repeat of the Elysée event in April. The Obamas, visiting Strasbourg for the Nato summit just after France re-joined the organisation, had no time, positively no time, to swing by Paris: the Bruni-Sarkozys had to make do with a short walkabout in Alsace. Adding insult to injury, Obama made the case for admitting Turkey into the EU, something both Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel are dead set against.
As for today's D-Day visit, which will mobilise several platoons of gendarmes and practically cordon off Normandy (7,000 official guests are expected, including Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks), the White House had – as of yesterday morning – still not given a firm schedule to the Elysée, whose hyper-professional flacks were uncharacteristically briefing against their American counterparts. No, Mr Obama had not accepted the dinner invitation on Friday; there would only be a working lunch in Caen today. Yes, Mrs Obama and her daughters would be staying in Paris over the weekend, but their plans were "uncertain"; it was a "private visit".
However, it was the fracas involving the Queen's invitation – or the lack of it – that really stirred things up. As it happens, nobody in Paris reacted at first to the accusation of a snub to Buckingham Palace. The French, who were originally planning to have Sarkozy attend a specific French-American ceremony, acceded to Downing Street's request that Gordon Brown tag along. But it was only when Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, insisted that Mr Obama wanted the Queen to attend, and was "working with those involved to see if we can make that happen", that the whole affaire took off.
The French opposition, which is expected to trail behind Sarkozy's UMP party in the Euro-elections tomorrow, realised that while French law forbids political campaigning from midnight onwards on the Saturday before a Sunday poll, Sarkozy would be on every television screen before the vote, saying worthy, statesmanlike things. They grabbed the Obama-validated royal story and ran with it. Sarkozy was pelted with insults by every opposition candidate in the country, who flew – with no sense of irony – to the defence of Britain, usually painted as the fly in the Euro-ointment. Sarkozy's behaviour towards Her Majesty was that of a cad, a buffoon, a jerk, a pathetic human being with no manners – a bad European, and a worse Frenchman.
Then, into this heated atmosphere, came the translation of Obama's speech in Cairo. Fabricated outrage was instantly replaced by very real indignation, in a country where the neutrality of the public space is sacrosanct. Obama's pointed words defending the hijab aroused the ire of feminists, teachers' unions, and even moderate Muslim groups, who have come to a civilised arrangement with the headscarf law, which bans the conspicuous display of religious symbols in schools. Equally vocal were France's political parties – not least the president's own.
For the first time, newspaper websites were full of anti-Obama comments – a decided first in France. However much he looked forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with the US president, Sarko may rue the day he dreamt up this D-Day photo-op.
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009