PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy is shedding friends in the French electorate and within his own party, and now his father and wife are nudging him not to run for a second term.
Fortunately for the French president, he has a long-awaited White House audience with Barack Obama next week to talk about squeezing Iran and saving Afghanistan, and that could help burnish Sarkozy's ever-bleaker reputation at home.
For a French leader hungry for the spotlight and enamored of the United States, the trip will be welcome news.
Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy will have a private dinner Tuesday with the Obamas in the White House quarters – something the French presidential palace calls a first under Obama and "a gesture of particular esteem."
For Obama, the visit is a chance to ask France to send more gendarmes to Afghanistan, and to show that he is not neglecting American allies as some Europeans fear, said Nicholas Dungan, a senior adviser at France's Institute for International and Strategic Relations.
Obama was criticized during his trip to Europe last June, which included a stop at the D-Day beaches in Normandy, for "treating Europe as a tourist destination," Dungan said.
Sarkozy says he will complain about the bidding for a $35 billion Air Force refueling tanker contract that Airbus parent EADS says unfairly favors U.S. rival Boeing Corp. Obama may counter by stressing the other potential contracts that France could pursue, from high-speed rail to nuclear power industry, according to a Western diplomat. Both are areas where France is a world industry leader.
Much of the trip will be about seeing the two personalities engage, Sarkozy's excitable, frank character and Obama's cool reserve.
"Sarkozy measures himself regularly against Barack Obama," said Steven Ekovich of the American University of Paris.
The two have also had differences. But a senior French official called them no more than "small irritations" and said relations are "confident. A Western diplomat called the tensions "a manufactured issue." Both officials were not authorized to be named because of their governments' policies.
A photo op with Obama is likely to provide a boost to Sarkozy's image, or at least his self-image, during a particularly rocky period that has many talking about France's 2012 presidential elections.
Sarkozy's approval ratings are sinking and his conservative party was trounced last weekend in regional elections by resurgent leftists, the last nationwide voting before the 2012 race. A poll released Friday shows that the once-low-profile Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry could even beat Sarkozy if elections were held now.
On Friday, Sarkozy's 82-year-old father Pal is quoted in an interview as saying the president "would have a calmer life if he doesn't run again."
"It's up to him to decide" about a second term, Pal Sarkozy said, according to the daily Le Parisien. He says he doesn't recommend running again, as a "father who loves his son and wants to see him happy."
Sarkozy's father is also releasing an autobiography that describes his own active and turbulent love life and the president's childhood.
Passages in the book, called "So Much Life," describe Pal Sarkozy's sexual explorations with servants and his honeymoon with the president's mother, Andree, nicknamed Dadou. He says he felt "betrayed" to find that "she was already a woman."
The two divorced when Nicolas Sarkozy was a boy, and the president has described the difficulties of growing up in a broken home. Sarkozy's office did not comment on the book Friday.
Meanwhile, the first lady is speaking out about their relationship, closely watched by French and foreign tabloids.
Asked about a second term for her husband, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is quoted this week in Madame Figaro magazine as saying: "As a spouse, I don't really want it. Perhaps I'm afraid that he will harm his health, perhaps I want to live what we have left to live in a certain peace?"
She said she would support him regardless.
"He is someone who protects me from myself and the world. He is someone who calms me. He is perhaps the first man who protects me," he said.
The former top model and now singer also says that she will appear in Woody Allen's next film, to be shot in Paris in the summer, and is working on a new album.
Sarkozy is not taking any French executives with him on this trip, but is bringing French thinkers and university deans. He gives a speech at Columbia University in New York on Monday about 200 years of Franco-American relations.
He'll also meet with Sen. John Kerry to discuss climate change legislation working its way through the American Congress. With Obama, Sarkozy will also discuss the Mideast and raising their cooperation a notch in the Sahel, a region that stretches from Somalia across North Africa.