PARIS (Reuters) - Barack Obama’s trip to Europe this weekend revealed deep anxieties among the French and Germans that the U.S. president, hugely popular in both countries, doesn’t really like them.
After years in which France and Germany happily distanced themselves from the unpopular policies of former President George W. Bush, Obama appeared bemused as he tried to reassure French and German journalists at a press conference they should not read anything into the brevity of his 2-1/2-day trip.
But he learnt, like the most popular kid in school who everyone wants to befriend, that the slightest gesture can seem like a snub to those anxious to be liked.
The president spent less than a day on Friday in Germany, where he held talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and visited the Buchenwald concentration camp that his great uncle helped to liberate in World War Two.
“Most of the speculation around my schedule here in Germany doesn’t take into account simple logistics, traveling, trying to get from one place to the other ... there are only 24 hours in a day.”
“So stop it, all of you,” Obama, with a smile, told journalists.
“I know you have to have something to report on but we have more than enough problems out there without manufacturing problems.”
The shortness of Obama’s stay in Germany and his decision not to go to Berlin led to German media speculation of a rift, but the president dismissed this as “wild speculation.”
Relations between Washington and Berlin have been less than smooth since Obama took office in January. Facing an election in September, Merkel has resisted U.S. pressure to take inmates from Guantanamo and send more troops to Afghanistan.
Obama traveled to Europe earlier this year to attend G-20 and NATO summits in a trip aimed at repairing ties with European allies alienated by Bush’s war on terror, invasion of Iraq and climate change policies.
Arriving in France on Saturday to attend commemorations marking the 65th anniversary of the World War Two D-Day landings, Obama again found himself on the defensive after holding only brief talks and a working lunch with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
French officials had expressed surprise, in private, that he could not find the time for an official reception at Sarkozy’s Elysee Palace. Obama dined with his wife Michelle at a restaurant near the Eiffel tower in Paris instead.
“I think it’s important to understand that good friends don’t worry about the symbols and the conventions and the protocols,” Obama told reporters with Sarkozy by his side, dismissing the suggestion he was snubbing his French host.
In translated remarks, Sarkozy was heard to say: “Do people think we should be hand in hand looking into each other’s eyes?”
“Don’t tell them they aren’t the best friends in the world,” the daily Le Parisien said on Sunday in an article accompanied by a photograph of the two men shaking hands.
Additional reporting by David Alexander and Francois Murphy; Editing by Matthew Jones