CANNES, France — Warning that the "most important" task for world leaders gathered here is to find a way to resolve Europe's financial crisis, U.S. President Barack Obama huddled privately Thursday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel on his arrival at the G-20.
Obama met with the two European leaders before the summit opened, hoping to find a fix to a surprise stumbling block: Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou's decision to ask voters to approve a Euro-crafted deal to stabilize the Greek economy. The package calls for several years of austerity measures for his country — which European leaders say it's got to be done to save the Eurozone.
Even as Obama met with Merekel and Sarkozy, developments in Greece were uncertain. The country's finance minister denounced the proposed referendum, and Papandreou called a cabinet meeting to deal with diverging opinions among his ministers on what Greece should do, just one day after his cabinet seemed to back the referendum.
White House officials said the uncertainty of what direction Greece would go made it more important than ever that Europe develop a "firewall" that would protect other countries from financial turmoil in one.
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Analysts have suggested Obama's influence is limited at the global meeting because of the U.S.'s own fiscal woes and its seeming inability to fix them. But Sarkozy glossed that over, telling reporters after the meeting that "we need the leadership of Barack Obama.
"We need the solidarity and the support of the United States of America," Sarkozy said. "We need joint common analysis as to the way we can put the world back on the path of growth and stability."
Obama later met with Merkel, hailing her for helping to hammer out a deal that the administration has said could stem the European debt crisis — though it lacks many details.
"Central to our discussions at the G-20 is how do we achieve greater global growth and put people back to work," Obama said. "That means we're going to have to resolve the situation here in Europe."
Computer guru and philanthropist Bill Gates will take the stage at the G-20 today to champion a so-called "Robin Hood" tax on big financial institutions.
Gates is expected to tell the group of industrialized and developing countries that they could raise billions a year to fight poverty by levying a small tax — also called a financial transaction tax — on share and bond trading.
"This money could be well spent and make a difference," Gates told the Guardian newspaper. "An FTT is more possible now than it was a year ago, but it won't be at rates that magically raise gigantic sums of money."
Sarkozy has embraced the idea of a financial transaction tax, but the White House has not. Sarkozy, though, told reporters after the meeting with Obama that they've found "common ground, or at least a common analysis, that the world of finance must contribute to solving the crisis that we are all facing today."
It wasn't all business: Obama, who quipped before the meeting with Sarkozy that he was "hoping to come and see some movies," congratulated the French President and his wife, former supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, on the birth of their daughter, Giulia: "I'm confident Giulia inherited her mother's looks and not her father's, which I think is an excellent thing," he said.
He and Sarkozy — who is also facing a tough reelection battle — will make a joint appearance on French TV tomorrow: "French people love the U.S. and appreciate President Obama a lot," Sarkozy said.
It was grey and overcast along the French Riviera as Obama's motorcade left the Nice airport after his arrival in France Thursday morning. Along the route, electronic road signs warned about G-20 related road closures. Signs hailing the summit boasted "L'histoire s'ecrit a Cannes — History's being written in Cannes."