With a podium flown in from France and his fingers firmly entwined with those of his smiling wife, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a splash Monday even before he opened his mouth for a no-holds-barred speech at Columbia University.
Amid tabloid reports of strains in their marriage, Sarkozy and ex-supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy made every effort to appear the happy couple, walking closely together and clasping hands as they mounted a staircase into an auditorium packed with students, faculty and other spectators.
The French first lady, elegant in a swept-up chignon and form-fitting black top with gray skirt, at times threatened to upstage her husband, who scolded his American hosts about health care and for not paying enough attention to the rest of the world.
French Web sites immediately picked up on the message. "Carla Bruni et Nicolas Sarkozy amoureux a New York" read a headline on the online site of entertainment magazine Voici, which mentioned the "electric atmosphere" of the Big Apple and its effects on the French presidential couple.
Sarkozy is in hot water at home. His poll ratings are at record lows of around 30 percent and there are widening cracks in his conservative party. In New York, though, he basked in the rapt attention of hundreds of Columbia students and even jettisoned a prepared speech.
"Speeches kill off creativity," he said. "I'm going to speak from the heart."
And he did.
"Welcome to the club of states who don't turn their back on the sick and the poor," Sarkozy said, referring to the U.S. health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama last week.
From the European perspective, he said, "when we look at the American debate on reforming health care, it's difficult to believe."
"The very fact that there should have been such a violent debate simply on the fact that the poorest of Americans should not be left out in the streets without a cent to look after them ... is something astonishing to us."
Then to hearty applause, he added: "If you come to France and something happens to you, you won't be asked for your credit card before you're rushed to the hospital."
Despite the strident words, the mood was celebratory — and Bruni-Sarkozy held the spotlight, with more than 100 members of the media focusing on her every move.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger introduced Sarkozy, but before the French leader could utter a single word, Bollinger asked the audience to give the French first lady "a special welcome."
Hundreds of students, professors and members of the public obliged, giving Bruni-Sarkozy a rousing ovation, which she acknowledged by rising, turning toward the audience and smiling.
She then listened to her husband speak, nodding supportively in the front row as Sarkozy called on the audience to "reflect on what it means to be the world's No. 1 power."
"The world needs an open America, a generous America, an America that shows the way, an America that listens," he said, calling on the U.S. to champion firm regulations of financial systems, from tax havens to hedge funds.
Columbia organizers said the French provided their own white podium and light gray rug for the speech, and also requested a special espresso machine.
The podium and rug complimented the color-coordinated French first couple — including his black suit and white tie and her wraparound black top, gray skirt and black-and-white umbrella.
In a change from the usual protocol, Sarkozy entered the Low Library by walking up the middle of the grand staircase that faces the Columbia campus, instead of from behind a gold curtain like most other speakers.
After arriving in New York on Sunday, the presidential couple left their hotel with arms wrapped around one another, smiling for cameras and kissing before going to lunch at the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park with Sarkozy's son from his second marriage, 12-year-old Louis, who goes to school in New York.
After meeting later Monday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Sarkozy and the first lady will join the Obamas for a private dinner in the White House on Tuesday.
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