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Sarkozy seeks to dodge public eye

Fends off press on N.H. vacation

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France posed for photographs near Lake Winnipesaukee yesterday in Wolfeboro, N.H. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France posed for photographs near Lake Winnipesaukee yesterday in Wolfeboro, N.H. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

WOLFEBORO, N.H. -- He is the visiting head of state of a major European ally. But President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is also just another guy trying to enjoy his Granite State vacation with family and friends.

That, anyway, was the impression Sarkozy tried to convey at an impromptu lakefront briefing yesterday with reporters who have been hawking his every move, from the dock to the lake to the $30,000-a-week Lake Winnipesaukee estate where he is staying.

"There are 900,000 French who come to America every year, I am one of those 900,000," Sarkozy said as he stood on the shore of the glistening lake. "It's a big country, a friend of France. . . . [The trip] has no political significance."

Sarkozy has been dogged all week by speculation about the meaning of his trip, as well as the question: Could France's new head of state travel to the United States without even saying hello to President George Bush?

"Perhaps," Sarkozy said yesterday with a smile. It was just about the only English he used at his meeting with two dozen French and American journalists. He said he hoped they would leave him alone for the rest of his vacation.

"I'll answer your questions, naturally, and afterward perhaps you can report on other news and leave me be," said Sarkozy, 52, in French as American Secret Service agents and his own security guards held back reporters trying to get closer. "You can enjoy the lake or go back to Paris."

Sarkozy declined to say whether he planned to meet with Bush, who is scheduled to vacation later this week at his parents' retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, 50 miles from Wolfeboro. Sarkozy fended off questions about a possible summit, the subject of much speculation last week in the French media and on the streets of Kennebunkport, where Bush last month hosted President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

The French leader said the Bush administration and the French presidential palace would announce a meeting if there is to be one.

"When the time comes, the White House and the Élysée will say what there is to say about an eventual meeting," he said.

Standing on the shore in this quaint resort town of 6,600 residents, Sarkozy seemed relaxed as he answered questions, and later posed for what he hoped were a final set of photographs. He wore loafers without socks and a white button-down shirt with his initials neatly embroidered in blue on the front pocket, the sleeves rolled up.

Later in the day, Sarkozy lost his temper with two American news photographers, AP photographer Jim Cole and freelancer Vince DeWitt, who were covering his vacation. The French president jumped onto their boat and scolded them loudly in French, briefly grabbing one of their cameras. After Cole and DeWitt promised to stop shooting photos for the day, Sarkozy calmed down, reboarded his boat, and continued out onto the lake with his party.

Since Thursday, Sarkozy has been staying with two other families -- one French, one French-American -- at a house owned by a former Microsoft executive. Yesterday, he said his vacation was not a diplomatic mission.

The visit "doesn't have any political significance," Sarkozy said, speaking in French. "I have the right to have friends, to visit them, to go on vacation. If I had gone to Italy, that wouldn't mean I didn't like Spain. If I had gone to Spain, that wouldn't mean I didn't like Greece."

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, criticized by France's former president Jacques Chirac, relations between Washington and Paris have been tepid. Observers on both sides of the Atlantic saw Sarkozy's election victory in May as a sign of change in the relationship. In his acceptance speech, he quipped that the new president of France would have less power than a governor of an American state.

Earlier, in 2004, Sarkozy had said, "Some in France call me Sarkozy the American. I'm proud of that."

Sarkozy defended France's recent role in negotiations with Libya over the fate of six medics who had been convicted of infecting Libyan children with the AIDS virus. Last month, Sarkozy's wife, Cécilia, flew to Tripoli on a presidential plane and returned with the nurses. French media have questioned whether the sale of French antitank weapons to Libya was related to the freeing of the medics.

Sarkozy is scheduled to fly home on Aug. 15. He did not say whether he would spend his entire vacation in Wolfeboro.

He has suggested to French media staked out in Wolfeboro that he had received some kind of invitation from Bush, although he continued to maintain yesterday that a summit had not been the reason for his visit to the United States.

Sarkozy said he enjoys the lake, the forests, and the sense of being in a special part of America. Friends, who he said have been vacationing in Wolfeboro for years, rented the house.

"It's very relaxing," he said. "It's exactly what I wanted."

Sarkozy is visiting with his wife and their son, Louis, 10, who went canoeing with his father. Sarkozy has two grown sons from a previous marriage.

The French president said he was missing just two things: the ability to speak English better, and a boating license. "My English is so bad," he said.

He has been spending his days jet-skiing and canoeing, and in the morning tries to jog for at least an hour to the beat of French artists on his iPod, which he said also includes songs by Elvis Presley and Céline Dion.

Yesterday's briefing also gave Wolfeboro residents a chance to catch a glimpse of the French president, one of many celebrities and politicians, including actress Drew Barrymore and Mitt Romney, who have passed through town.

Leaning forward expectantly, Kimberly Thomson, 26, sat near the site of the briefing, a spot where residents frequently sprawl on the grass to listen to summertime concerts. Thomson, a high school social studies teacher, had come from church with her family, and said she might someday speak of her brush with Sarkozy.

"His actions of being here speak louder than anything I'd hear him say," she said.

A lone protester watched for Sarkozy. Brooks Campbell, 57, wore a navy Veterans For Peace hat and hoisted a sign with a traffic symbol and the words, "Iraq Escalation: Wrong Way."

"I need him to be honest and truthful to the president," Campbell said, looking at the horde of Secret Service agents and journalists. "I hope the leaders of the world unite."

After the press conference, Sarkozy was swarmed, shaking hands and posing for photos. Minutes later he was whisked off in a SUV.

"Pretty exciting for Wolfeboro, huh?" said Chuck Czerkawski, 48, a Cohasset resident who summers by the lake.

April Yee can be reached at ayee@globe.com. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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