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(photo credit: AP)
Apparently, it's not easy being Carla Bruni. Sure, you're gorgeous, rich, talented, and recently married to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But that doesn't mean you don't have to make some compromises - culturally, socially, and politically. Yes, politically.
France's first lady recently gave an interview to the French newspaper Liberation, in which she talked about, among other things, trying to upgrade her husband's more plebian tastes - "Perhaps I can help to enable him to better communicate on the things that he loves, to give more room to culture;" toning down her own bohemian style to adjust to a more conservative environment "that is completely alien to me;" and bridging the ideological gap with her right-wing Gaullist husband - "My instinctive reflexes are left-wing; I am not joined at the hip with his politics."
Fortunately, as Israelis now have the opportunity to see first-hand, she and Sarkozy seem to be doing just fine - so much so that she even declared: "If he ever stood for election again, I would still vote for him." Ahhh, c'est l'amour. And in truth, Sarkozy does look like a hard man to resist once he sets his mind on winning over a woman - or a country.
Certainly, he's done a pretty good job so far, aided by la femme Carla, of wooing the Israeli political establishment, media, and presumably a good deal of the public as well. But like everything else French, this affair is a complicated one - and it remains to be seen whether his political differences with Israel can be so easily overcome as those he had with his glamorous wife.
Still, he arrived here this week with some distinct advantages when it comes to upgrading Franco-Israeli relations. Until Sarkozy's Knesset speech yesterday, the most memorable words spoken by any French president on Israeli soil were these: "I'm starting to have enough of this. What do you want, me to go back to my plane and go back to France? Is that what you want? Let them go! Let them go!" Those lines were uttered, in full view of the television cameras, by Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac in 1996, as he toured through the Old City of Jerusalem and became annoyed with his Israeli security guards as they sought to keep some distance between their distinguished charge and some local Arab residents.
Chirac's patronizing arrogance to his Israeli handlers and readiness to immediately take sides with the Arabs during that one incident, seemed to many here emblematic of the official French attitude toward Israel, from the time when Charles De Gaulle left the French presidency, until Sarkozy took up residence in the ElyseÃ© Palace last year.
When he took to the Knesset podium yesterday, Sarkozy had a different message for Israelis, a message of respect, of appreciation, of - well, if not quite amour, at least undying friendship.
France, he assured us, is "Israel's friend, and will always stand by her side when her security or existence are threatened. Those who scandalously call for the destruction of Israel will always, always, find France blocking their path... France will always stand by Israel's side. I ask you to trust us because we want to help you. France is ready to provide its guarantee, ready to mobilize its diplomatic service, its resources, its soldiers. You can trust France."
Trust France? Coming from any French leader other than him, those words might seem risible (and to some here, probably still do). But this is no sudden and convenient passion on Sarkozy's part; having declared himself throughout his career as a strong supporter of Israel, even at a time when it was politically risky to do so in the Chirac-dominated Gaullist Party, the French president has earned for himself a reservoir of goodwill and credibility in Jerusalem matched by no other Parisian politician.
Still, as with Bruni, Sarkozy is a pretty demanding suitor, and he's made clear on this trip that in this relationship also, it's Israel that will have to do more of the adjusting to meet his requirements. For all his seductive rhetoric, which of course sounds even better in French, most of Sarkozy's Middle East policy is not dramatically different from that of the Palace ElyseÃ©'s former occupants.
On the Palestinian issue, it's virtually the same as Chirac's in substance, right down to the insistence on returning to the '67 borders, Jerusalem included. Although France will take over the rotating chair of the European Union presidency next month, automatically giving it more prominence in the Quartet road map deliberations, any notion that Paris will play an expanded mediating role in Israeli-Palestinian relations should be dismissed at this stage as Gallic gall.
If Sarkozy is truly looking to fill a more significant role in the Middle East peacemaking sphere, that opportunity is far more likely to come in helping Israel bridge gaps with Lebanon and Syria, nations where France already has significant historical influence, and a current investment in the form of the 1,800 French soldiers serving on Lebanese soil as part of the peacekeeping force put into place after the Second Lebanon War.
But if the French president is truly looking to impress Jerusalem as a steadfast friend who deserves the kind of trust he is asking for, the real testing ground will be the leadership he can provide in mobilizing his fellow Europeans to take stronger diplomatic and economic measures to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
If Sarkozy succeeds in that task, trusting a France under his leadership might not seem the kind of unlikely proposition it did under the governance of his predecessors. But first he will likely have to learn that no matter how ardent and effective a suitor one might be, convincing a country to trust you enough to make political compromises is a lot harder and takes a lot longer than it does a woman - even one like Carla Bruni.