Sarko The American

Lesley Stahl Interviews France's New Leader

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When Nicolas Sarkozy, France's new president, visits the White House next week it'll symbolize how much French-American relations have improved since the war in Iraq. Like most of the French, Sarkozy opposes the war, but he's a fan of almost everything else American: from Hollywood movies to the American work ethic. On issue after issue -- from Iran to Israel to the war on terror -- he sides with U.S. policy. He is so pro-U.S., the French call him "Sarko the American."

The son of an immigrant from Hungary, Sarkozy is a real departure from past French presidents: he's prone to flashes of quick temper, and as of last week, he's divorced. As correspondent Lesley Stahl found out, he's young, high energy, and thoroughly intriguing.

When Sarkozy became president in May at age 52, he waved goodbye to the old political order and started his own. The inauguration was a dazzling beginning, after a tough election in which Sarkozy asked the French people for a mandate for radical change. And he got it.

Sarkozy showed off his family, happy with comparisons to the Kennedys: his glamorous wife Cecilia, a former model, her two daughters, his two sons from previous marriages, and their own 10-year-old, Louis. Sarkozy's affection for his wife was evident.

The five months since then have been a whirlwind of made-for-TV appearances: fiery speeches, a drop-in at a mosque, and meetings with a parade of world leaders. Sarkozy is so omnipresent, his countrymen have started calling him "super Sarko," the "energizer president." His style is something the French aren't used to: plunging into crowds and glad-handing.

When Stahl first met him for a quick, impromptu conversation on his presidential airplane, he was in a playful mood, grabbing her notes.

"Égalité," he joked.

Which he said would put himself and Stahl on an equal footing. But he refused to wear a microphone, which made the audio difficult.

"They call you 'Sarko the American.' Why?" Stahl asked.

"'Cause I love America. I want to be friend of America," the president replied.

"But the name?" she asked.

"I am proud of this nickname. J'aime musique Américaine," Sarkozy explained, saying he likes U.S. music.

"Elvis Presley of course," he said.

"This story will introduce you to the American people. What do you most want them to know about you?" Stahl asked.

"I want the Americans to know that they can count on us," Sarkozy explained. "But, at the same time, we want to be free to disagree."

U.S.-French relations have been sour for decades, but in 2003 disagreement over the war in Iraq plunged them to a new low when then-President Jacques Chirac openly opposed the Bush administration. In the U.S., all things French were denigrated: their cars were smashed, their wine was dumped and their fries renamed "Freedom Fries."

"It became very heated, unpleasant at times," remembers Jean David Lévitte, France's ambassador to Washington at the time.

Now Sarkozy's national security adviser, Lévitte told 60 Minutes improving U.S. relations is a top Sarkozy priority.

"He even mentioned it in his acceptance speech the night he was elected president. Why did he go that far as to mention how much he likes America on that occasion?" Stahl asked.

"Well, because he thinks it's important. He thinks that in his campaign he had to say to the French people, 'Beware, if you elect me, I will implement this program.' And part of the program is to rebuild strong, good, friendly relations with the U.S. And I think he's succeeding magnificently," Lévitte explained.

To underscore his message, Sarkozy went so far as to spend his first vacation as president of France on a lake in New Hampshire with his family. The Bushes, nearby in Kennebunkport, invited them over for hot dogs, hamburgers and a little Franco-American bonding. But Sarkozy's personal life and his own temperament began to intrude. His wife Cecilia created an embarrassing situation when she snubbed the Bushes by pulling out of the event at the last minute.