French President Sarkozy all but endorses Obama

PARIS — Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy staged a joint press conference in Paris Friday that was more like a romantic comedy, with Sarkozy's enthusiasm for the Democratic presidential candidate starkly evident amid many amusing moments.

The two men see eye to eye on most pressing global problems, Obama said, reiterating points he's stressed earlier this week that Iran should freeze its nuclear program and the West must win the war in Afghanistan.

But it was the mood music more than the substantive points that was most striking.

Sarkozy called Obama "my dear" and said he'd work with any American president — but "I am especially happy to be meeting with the senator."

In an effusive, rambling soliloquy, Sarkozy said twice that that "the French love the Americans," and declared that "the adventure of Barack Obama, it is a story which speaks to the heart of French people and speaks to the heart of Europeans."

Perhaps sensing that he was going over the top, the French president hastened to add that he recognized that "it's not up to French people to choose the next U.S. president."

A reporter nonetheless asked Sarkozy if he was endorsing Obama — who half-jokingly said "I'm going to warn my dear friend President Sarkozy to be very careful about that ... question" _and Sarkozy then said: "It's the Americans who will choose their president, not me."

But he added in an implicit comparison of Obama with his rival Republican John McCain: "Obviously, one is interested in a candidate that's looking toward the future rather than to the past."

Given some Americans' dislike of the French, both culturally and for the country's strong opposition to the Iraq war, one French journalist asked Obama if maybe it was dangerous for Obama to be so popular among the French - and whether that explained why the France stop was the shortest leg of his week-long foreign tour, only a few hours.

Obama denied that, and said, "the average American has enormous fondness for the French people."

Obama's chief campaign strategist David Axelrod said Sarkozy's backing should be seen as a positive sign.

"He's been friendly with Bush, you have to take it in that context," Axelrod said. "Our message is, we want to rebuild the alliances that are so critical."

The two leaders' joint news conference followed a private chat at the Elysee Palace. Both men emerged declaring "a great convergence of opinions," as Sarkozy put it, on everything from Iran and Afghanistan to the Middle East and climate change.

Obama warned Iran directly about its nuclear program: "Change your behavior," he said, "and you will be fully integrated into the international community with all of the benefits that go with that. Continue your nuclear program and the international community as a whole will ratchet up pressure with stronger and increased sanctions."

On Afghanistan, Sarkozy echoed Obama: "We have not the right to lose," the French president said. "We must not allow the Taliban to return."

Sarkozy is a conservative who has emphasized strong transatlantic relations with the United States and been close to President Bush. That's made the U.S.-French relationship closer than under former French President Jacques Chirac.

The Paris stop came as Obama wound down a well-received foreign tour that began with an official delegation to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq and shifted to a campaign-funded visit to the Middle East and Western Europe.

Obama said what he gained from the trip was "not blinding insight but a deepening of a set of concerns you already had" and that "there was nothing that I saw that caused me to change my basic strategic assessment" on security and foreign policy.

While his Thursday speech to 200,000 in Berlin on improving transatlantic relations was the highlight of the trip in terms of sheer spectacle, Sarkozy's effusive treatment of Obama revealed perhaps more than any other public event just how invested many U.S. allies are in Obama's prospects.

Obama, whose charisma normally trumps politicians with whom he shares a stage, looked staid and seemed to be measuring his words as he stood beside the animated Sarkozy, although at some points he couldn't help but grin.

He is to meet with British leaders on Saturday, before flying home to Chicago.