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Sarkozy's visit heralds better US-French ties

Two countries work to mend fallout from war

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France (right) addressed the French-American Business Council yesterday in Washington. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France (right) addressed the French-American Business Council yesterday in Washington. (CHARLES DHARAPAK/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Deb Riechmann
Associated Press / November 7, 2007

WASHINGTON - "Freedom fries" were replaced by lobster bisque and lamb at an elegant White House dinner last night as President Bush and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France officially opened a cozier chapter in US-French relations.

The two countries back tough diplomacy to keep Iran from having nuclear weapons. They have jointly sponsored UN resolutions supporting Lebanese sovereignty. And while France fiercely opposed the war in Iraq, Sarkozy sent his foreign minister on a surprise three-day trek to Baghdad in August to enhance France's role in Iraq's future.

Bush began a toast to Sarkozy in the State Dining Room by saying "welcome to the White House" in French, then talked of working with France to help others around the world resist tyranny and oppression.

"French and American troops are helping defend a young democracy in Afghanistan," Bush said. "Our two nations support the democratic government in Lebanon. We agree that reconciliation and democracy in Iraq are vital to the future of the Middle East. And our two nations condemn violations of human rights in Darfur, in Burma, and around the world."

Sarkozy, who was seated next to Laura Bush, came to the White House alone. He and his wife, Cecilia, announced their divorce Oct. 18, a first for a French head of state.

In his toast, which was considerably longer than Bush's, Sarkozy acknowledged anti-American sentiment in his country by joking that his victory is proof that one can be a friend of the United States and still win elections in France.

Sarkozy spoke with passion about freedom and liberty and the need for US-French cooperation in addressing terrorism, nuclear proliferation, poverty, and religious fanaticism.

"I've come to Washington to bear a very simple, straightforward message. . . . I wish to re-conquer the heart of America. I want to re-conquer the heart of America in a lasting fashion," he said.

Even before he was elected in May, Sarkozy worked to mend relations with the United States that were bruised by former president Jacques Chirac's clash with Bush, especially over the Iraq war.

"I never quite understood why we had to fight with the United States," Sarkozy said earlier in the day.

"When we Europeans were faced with the worst atrocities of the 20th century, two abominable wars, your parents came to help us," Sarkozy said at a meeting of the French-American Business Council. "I am here to tell you that the French people will never forget."

As the evening began, Bush smiled and waved at Sarkozy before he emerged from a black limousine that was adorned with tiny French and American flags. The two leaders, both dressed in tuxedoes, shook hands and briefly embraced.

Sarkozy kissed Laura Bush's hand, then both her cheeks. As the three walked into the White House on a red and gold carpet, Bush patted Sarkozy on the back.

Sarkozy, an energetic 52-year-old conservative known in France as "Sarko the American," has wasted no time in his bid to modernize France, in part by trying to inject an American-style work ethic.

As a sign of his pro-American tendencies, he took a summer vacation in the United States, causing a stir back home.

In August, he visited Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H. - about 50 miles from the Bush compound known as Walker's Point. Sarkozy stopped by the Bush family compound, which juts into the Atlantic, and the two leaders took a speed boat ride and had an American-style picnic of hot dogs, hamburgers, and baked beans.

Much time has passed since France's opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 provoked some Americans to rename French fries "freedom fries" or boycott French cheese and wine.

Still, during his first official trip to the United States, Sarkozy will be careful not to appear as Bush's shadow or evoke comparisons with former prime minister Tony Blair of Britain, who was accused by critics of being Bush's lap dog.

More than 100 guests were invited to the dinner of bisque, lamb, tomato fondue, ragout of green beans, sweet potato casserole, salad, and dessert.

Among the guests: Major League Baseball pitcher Tom Glavine of the New York Mets, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, French chef Guy Savoy, and a number of politicians from Louisiana.

At the business council, the first event of his visit to Washington, Sarkozy pledged that France, under his leadership, had left behind tensions with the United States over the war.

He also said France would stick to a tough line on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"I think we need to be firm," he said, adding that he believes that sanctions could be effective.

Today, he plans to be with Bush on a tour of Mount Vernon, home of President Washington, and address a joint session of Congress.

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