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Sarkozy in the US

Nick AmiesNovember 6, 2007

A week of international diplomacy continues when French President Sarkozy makes his first official trip to the United States. His talks with US President Bush could alter the current state of trans-Atlantic relations.

President Bush, left, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy during Sarkozy's visit to Maine in August.
Presidents Bush and Sarkozy began the rebuilding with an informal visit earlier this yearImage: AP

While both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are traveling to Washington this week with important business to discuss, it is Sarkozy's visit on Tuesday, Nov. 6, with US President George W. Bush that is generating the most interest on both sides of the Atlantic.

French-US relations, which for decades could be described as cordial at best, took a damaging turn in 2003 when Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, determinedly opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. After Chirac stepped down as president earlier this year, the temperature between the two nations -- which had barely made it above tepid -- began rising.

US ties vital to France's EU role

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Sarkozy has made no secret of his admiration for the USImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Sarkozy has decided that French interests are best served by a closer alliance with Washington," said Reginald Dale, a trans-Atlantic relations expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Sarkozy sees that France cannot hope to regain its leadership of Europe, which is his aim, if Paris is always tagged as anti-American."

Sarkozy is the most pro-American French leader in years and arrives in Washington this week committed to showing the US that France has moved on from the bitterness caused by the divisions over Iraq and that he is a committed European partner.

Sarkozy determined to be friend of US

President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac in Paris, 2004
Bush and Chirac's falling-out still resonates in WashingtonImage: AP

The French president has already laid the groundwork for a visit which is sure to be full of mutual praise, pledges of support, pumping handshakes and smiles.

"The trial has started, I will be a friend of the Americans," the French president said two weeks ago. "Do we agree about everything? No, because in a family you can have disagreements. But we are in the same family. That is the truth of it."

However, the breakdown in relations under Chirac is still fresh in American minds and it will take more than a few warm words to convince the White House of a significant shift in French policy.

"Washington is not yet sure that it completely trusts Sarkozy and is worried by his frenetic hyperactivity, which sometimes makes him look almost unbalanced," Dale said. "Historically, the default mode in US-French relations has been one of abrasiveness and mutual suspicion, and it will take substantial, concrete results to dispel that suspicion."

Shared Iran stance overshadows differences

While there is still tension between the two nations -- Sarkozy has criticized US environmental policies and the war in Iraq -- France and the US have found common ground on a number of pressing international issues.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad
Ahmadinejad's Iran could face tougher sanctionsImage: AP

Iran is one subject is likely to top a number of Bush's meetings this week. Washington has leaned toward imposing stricter sanctions against Tehran, and Bush may find a strong supporter in France as Sarkozy has been more willing to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue than Chirac was.

That support could even lead to a shift in future discussions over the Iranian nuclear program.

Sarkozy setting the agenda for Europe

"The fact that Sarkozy arrives [before Merkel on Friday] could influence how subsequent talks on Iran progress," said Sandra Herbinger of the International Transatlantic Relations Council. "What he and Bush discuss on Iran will put huge pressure on those who follow, particularly Merkel.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Toulouse
Merkel may have to follow Sarkozy's lead on IranImage: AP

"With France leading on this, Germany will have to accept that it is not the only key partner for the United States in Europe and that Sarkozy's is the lead Europe will be encouraged to follow," she added.

Analysts said that since Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as British prime minister, Sarkozy has become a central player for Washington, something the French president's opponents have also noted.

Before moving into the Elysee Palace, Sarkozy was accused by the Socialist party as being "Bush's poodle" -- a term often used by opposition politicians in the UK to describe Blair. Since being elected, Sarkozy has continued to face suspicion for his apparent desire to side with a deeply unpopular US president.

"Sarkozy can certainly strengthen French bonds with Washington, though he will take care not to look subservient, but he cannot hope to replace the 'special relationship' between the US and Britain," Dale said. "And almost certainly doesn't want to try."