WASHINGTON — Mending fences with traditional allies and holding a tough line on Iran are themes at the White House this week as President Bush hosts French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Washington and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his Texas ranch.
Sarkozy's White House stop is the first by a French president since Nov. 6, 2001, when his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, visited not long after 9-11. Bush later had a chilly relationship with Chirac because of the French leader's staunch opposition to the Iraq war. But Bush and the pro-American Sarkozy have made a point of getting off on the right footing.
When Bush was too ill to attend his first official meeting with Sarkozy during the Group of Eight Summit in Germany in June, Sarkozy went to Bush's sickroom for the session. Then Bush served the French president hamburgers and hot dogs in August when Sarkozy took time out of a New Hampshire vacation to pay a short visit to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
So the White House is pulling out all the stops to give a warm welcome to the leader that his countrymen call "Sarko l'Americain" and "Super Sarko" — and to prove that the French-bashing days of "freedom fries," wine boycotts and destroying Citroens are over.
Sarkozy was the featured guest Tuesday night for a social dinner and entertainment at the White House. On Wednesday he's to address a joint session of Congress and then tour George Washington's nearby Virginia home, Mount Vernon, with Bush.
"Even though we had some disagreements on views with the French, I believe the relationship between the two countries was very strong," said Gordon Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman. "What President Sarkozy has been talking about is his affinity towards America and how good relations between America and France is good for the world community."
Administration officials view Sarkozy as a breath of fresh air — an Elvis-loving, iPod-listening straight talker. He also sees fiscally conservative U.S.-style policies — such as cutting taxes and reducing the federal work force — as part of the solution to some of France's political and social ills.
"I love America. I want to be a friend of America," Sarkozy told CBS's "60 Minutes" last month. "I want the Americans to know that they can count on us. At the same time, we want to be free to disagree."
Sarkozy has even been woven into the fabric of the 2008 presidential campaign. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani likes to say how out of step the Democratic presidential field is by pointing out that even the president of France is interested in tax reductions, smaller government and moving French workers beyond the 35-hour workweek.
"This visit confirms a sense of convergence between the French and the United States," said Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe Program. "Sarkozy has been heard here. And President Bush has come to believe it's possible to do business with Sarkozy."
Since Sarkozy assumed office in May, he's espoused beliefs that have been music to Bush's ears. He's publicly contemplated France's full-fledged return to NATO and taken a hard-line stance on Iran.
"Sarkozy goes a couple of steps beyond Chirac on Iran," Serfaty said. "He has called for European Union sanctions. He has not been reluctant to speak of the use of force. He goes farther than Chirac on Iran, and he is more credible."
White House officials say Bush and Sarkozy are still in the getting-to-know-you phase of their relationship. While the two are hardly as close as Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were, there's a certain kinship and chemistry between them.
"Sarkozy is unlike his predecessors; he's much more direct," Serfaty said. "He speaks in a way that's easily translatable. His sentences are plain. There's not that elusiveness that was found in Chirac, (Francois) Mitterrand and (Charles) de Gaulle. He's a doer, a man of action."
Bush may need support from France to help solidify a European response to Iran.
When he meets with Merkel on Friday and Saturday, the visit to his Texas home will reflect the high status that Merkel enjoys with the White House. She's perhaps Bush's closest European ally now that Blair is gone.
But despite their warm relationship, Germany is more hesitant than the United States, Britain or France to impose new U.N. economic sanctions on Iran, a key Bush foreign-policy priority.
However, news reports Tuesday from Berlin quoted Merkel as saying that Germany would support tougher sanctions if Iran doesn't back away from nuclear development.
"Iran will certainly be discussed, but there are a number of issues to be discussed," Johndroe said. "Iran, Iraq, Syria, Darfur, Lebanon, energy security and climate change."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007