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Sarko's American vacation

FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy, who lunched with the Bush family at Kennebunkport, Maine, on Saturday, was proud in the past to tell Americans that he is called "Sarko l'Américain" back home. That was when he served as a mere minister in the cabinet of President Jacques Chirac, who had a way of making "les anglo-saxons" sound as barbarous as an invading horde from the steppes of Asia. But now that Sarkozy has supplanted Chirac as head of state and taken his August vacation in Wolfeboro, N.H., he is learning that no amount of ebullient Americophilia can efface the distinction between being American and being French.

A telling lesson in the difference of national customs came earlier this month when he incautiously boarded the boat of two American news photographers, who had stationed themselves on the lake in front of the mansion rented for Sarkozy by wealthy family friends. The notoriously irascible Sarko read them the riot act. They said he even showed them a raised finger, in a gesture that may not have quite the same overtone of belligerence in France as it does in these parts.

The photographers told the French daily Le Figaro that they had acted legally; they were outside the French party's security perimeter and had a right to take pictures in a public place. Le Figaro had to explain to its French readers that, in a country lacking the "right to private life," it is understood that if the president is visible, anyone can photograph him.

Sarkozy might have thought he was doing what Rambo or Dirty Harry would have done in the circumstances. The French president is said to be a quick learner, so maybe he will take away from this escapade a realization that little is to be gained from acting more American than the Americans.

In truth, the US Secret Service would never permit an American president to accost unknown stalkers, and a modern US president is hardly ever allowed to improvise. Sarkozy's advisers can tell him how tightly controlled are the myriad reporters who loiter at the edge of President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, waiting for a press spokesperson to dole out a description of the commander-in-chief's holiday doings -- and only rarely getting the chance to record even a few words of light-hearted presidential palaver.

The specter haunting American politics today has little to do with the private life of public figures and everything to do with crucial policy decisions that are made in private and concealed from the public. When Sarkozy returns to Paris later this week, he may boast of undoing Chirac's delusions about rivalry with America. But seeking to emulate the recent American trend toward a monarchical presidency would be a terrible mistake.

He can vacation as Sarko l'Américain, but he should govern as a servant of La République française.

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