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Yes, it's a joke.
But it's a favorite of Sen. John McCain's on the stump, and it includes a couple of serious claims worth checking.
A recent iteration of the gag came during a McCain speech at the Maine Military Museum & Learning Center in South Portland, Maine, after a reference to how the French approach nuclear power.
"And by the way, in case you missed it, we now have a pro-American president in France," McCain said July 21, 2008. "Which shows if you live long enough, anything can happen in this world. So — and we're grateful to him."
It's a self-deprecating poke by McCain at his own age. But it's also a jab at France, and it rests on the twin assumptions that the country's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is pro-American, and that it is new or unusual for the president of France to feel that way.
We know where McCain's coming from.
There has long been in France, especially in the intellectual class, a resistance to American culture. They like their boulangeries, or bakeries, a lot more than the McDonald's we're exporting to them, for example.
Sarkozy is different, in some respects.
"He likes American culture more than any other former president of France," said Jean-Philippe Mathy, French studies professor at the University of Illinois and author of French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars. "He's taking a lot of flak because he's kind of nouveau riche and he likes to wear expensive watches and things like that."
He's got a little Hollywood in him. Just check out his wife .
Sarkozy's open admiration for America has earned him the nickname "Sarko l'Amricain."
That said, he's not quite as pro-American as McCain implies, nor are past French presidents as anti-American.
Sarkozy is an ardent proponent of U.S.-style free-market capitalism — a philosophy that in Europe is called "liberalism" but resembles what we call conservatism. He is intent on dismantling portions of France's prodigious welfare state and social security system.
But with respect to the most notable policy difference between France and the United States in recent years — the split over the decision to invade Iraq — Sarkozy is only somewhat different from his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
Chirac opposed the invasion before it took place, and in November 2004 said it had "made the world more dangerous." Sarkozy has accused Chirac of being "arrogant" for the manner in which he voiced his opposition, but Sarkozy did not support the war either, and has let it be known that he too would have declined to send troops to Iraq.
In a speech at Columbia University in 2004, Sarkozy said France's opposition stemmed from its violent colonial history in Algeria and Vietnam.
"Please don't be angry with us because we remember what happened to us," he said. "Is there ever a single country of the world, at any time of history, that was able to maintain itself in a sustained way in a country that was not its own, uniquely by force of arms? Never, not a single one, even the Chinese."
That follows in a long tradition of French presidents who, while maintaining a close alliance with the United States, have resisted certain aspects of our foreign policy to varying degrees.
Franois Mitterrand, a socialist who was president of France from 1981 to 1995, leaned toward the hostile end of that spectrum. On the other hand, his predecessor, Valry Giscard d'Estaing, a probusiness, center-right politician who was president from 1974 to 1981, was widely regarded as very friendly to the United States, experts said.
Charles de Gaulle, president from 1959 to 1969, was famously resistant to American influence, and is probably the main source of the stereotype to which McCain was referring, according to Edward Berenson, director of the Institute of French Studies at New York University. He pulled France's troops out of NATO's command structure to signal independence from Washington in 1966, though ultimately he leaned sharply away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States in the Cold War.
So yes, a strain of anti-Americanism runs through French foreign policy and culture, flaring up at times and mellowing out at others. But French presidents have long been pro-American in the most important sense, maintaining their alliance with the United States. And if it's France's objection to the invasion of Iraq that McCain's audience is concerned about, he's misleading them to suggest Sarkozy is very different. But Sarko is Amricain in some respects, so we find McCain's claim to be Half True.
National Public Radio, Sarkozy Brings Fresh Ideas to Foreign Policy , July 23, 2008
New York Times, Chirac Says War in Iraq Spreads Terrorism , Nov. 18, 2004
New York Times, With Sarkozy, Bush May Find a Close Friend in France , May 7, 2007
Interview with Jean-Philippe Mathy, professor of French studies at the University of Illinois, July 22, 2008
Interview with Edward Berenson, director of New York University's Institute of French Studies, July 22, 2008
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