Two days before the first round of the presidential election last month, Nicolas Sarkozy donned a red checked shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, mounted a small white horse named Universe and rode around the Camargue country in France's deep south. A gaggle of reporters and cameramen followed him in a cart pulled by a tractor. The black bulls on the nearby pasture stayed away.
"A vague resemblance to the look of George W. Bush on his Texan ranch," is how the left-leaning newspaper Liberation described Sarkozy, who was elected president Sunday, beating the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal in a runoff. The newspaper dismissed the event as a media stunt, saying, "Everything for the image, right up until the last minute."
Sarkozy is unabashedly pro-American, a man who openly proclaims his love of Ernest Hemingway, Steve McQueen and Sylvester Stallone and his admiration for America's strong work ethic and its belief in upward mobility.
The last film that made Sarkozy cry was Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion." He once said he wanted Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" as his victory song. He calls himself "proud" to wear the label "Sarkozy the American."
In his acceptance speech Sunday night, Sarkozy reached out to the United States, signaling his desire to end the tension that existed with Washington during Chirac's presidency.
Addressing his "American friends," Sarkozy said, "I want to tell them that France will always be by their side when they need her, but that friendship is also accepting the fact that friends can think differently."
He was so pleased with the message that he told an American friend just before the speech, "I'm going to talk about America!"
There must have been relief in the White House on Sunday that Bush didn't have to call Royal to congratulate her. After all, she said during the campaign that she would never kneel before Bush the way she suggested her opponent had done. She tried to tar Sarkozy as an imitator of what she called Bush's phony compassionate conservatism. She even told a Hezbollah lawmaker in Lebanon last December that she agreed with him when he talked about the "unlimited dementia" of the Bush administration.
Instead, with the imminent departure of Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Bush was able to congratulate the man who may well become his new best friend in Europe.
"They had a friendly, very friendly chat," said David Martinon, Sarkozy's chief of staff, in a telephone interview. "Mr. Sarkozy wants to improve the relationship with the United States, to renew it. There's a need for a change. There has to be a way to restore confidence."
Sarkozy is Bush's kind of guy: brash, tough-talking and proud of it. Sarkozy's vow to rid the troubled suburbs of France of delinquent youths — "scum," he calls them — is the French equivalent of Bush's vow to "Bring 'em on."
Both men are teetotalers. Both are disciplined exercisers: Sarkozy jogs, but like Bush, also is a fearsome bike rider.