NEW YORK — French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an upfront speech today in New York, urged the United States to lead the way in imposing new global financial regulations — and to pay more attention to the rest of the world.
Sarkozy stood firm against terrorism, pledging to keep up the fight in Afghanistan and rallying behind Russia after deadly subway attacks.
But his main message was spurring the United States — and President Barack Obama, who will host the French leader Tuesday at the White House — to prevent future economic crises.
“You should reflect on what it means to be the world’s No. 1 power,” he said, during his speech at Columbia University, repeatedly pointing his finger at the hundreds of students and faculty gathered for his speech.
His wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, nodded supportively in the front row, after the two climbed the steps of the elite university’s library hand-in-hand.
“The world does not stop at the East Coast, the world does not stop at the West Coast,” Sarkozy said. “The world needs an open America, a generous America, an America that shows the way, an America that listens.”
Sarkozy wants the United States to champion firm regulations of financial systems, from tax havens to hedge funds. His ideas were shared by many in the immediate wake of the financial crisis but momentum for dramatic changes has since slowed.
“We should invent a new global monetary order,” he said, insisting that new regulations would “save capitalism.”
After wagging his finger at American bankers, he stressed that France remains a friend and ally to the United States, especially in fighting terrorism.
“When New York was attacked, it was all the democracies of the world who were attacked,” he said. “When Moscow is attacked, it is all of us who are attacked,” he said of deadly bombings today in the Moscow metro.
In Afghanistan, Sarkozy told his U.S. audience, “We will remain at your side.” That is a sentiment he’s certain to share with Obama, who is just back from an Afghan trip. Obama wants European allies to send more troops and trainers.
Sarkozy’s room for maneuvering is limited. France has 3,750 troops in Afghanistan, but public support in France for the war is low — as is public support for Sarkozy, whose conservative party lost big in regional elections a week ago and poll ratings are down as low as 30 percent.
Sarkozy’s trip to New York and Washington this week provides the French leader relief from his political troubles at home, and a chance to bask in his international stature before he takes over the chairmanship of the G-20 and G-8 groups of leading world economies next year.
Columbia organizers said the French flew in a special podium and rug just for him, and procured a special espresso machine at his request, too. Sarkozy entered the Low Library rotunda not from behind a curtain as most speakers do, but by climbing the grand staircase that faces the campus.
More than two hours before Sarkozy was to deliver his speech, hundreds of people lined up in the rain to pass through stringent airport-style security and nab seats.
Sarkozy’s speech was meant to cover the the 200-year-old French-American friendship but instead primarily focused on current affairs.
The French president had loaded words of praise for the U.S. health care reform law just signed by Obama last week. The law is expected to extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans and aim to crack down on unpopular insurance industry practices such as denying coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.
From the European perspective, “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.”
“You can’t let people simply die,” he said. Then he delivered the line that brought his hearty applause from the audience: “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.”
Sarkozy meets later in the day with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, with the stalled Mideast peace process and Iran’s nuclear program on the agenda.
Sarkozy also visited with his third son, Louis, who goes to school in New York and lives primarily with Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cecilia.
Sarkozy and the first lady will join the Obamas for a private dinner Tuesday in the White House.