PARIS (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will showcase their countries’ reconciliation on Saturday as they move past tension over the Iraq war towards diplomatic cooperation on issues such as Iran.
As part of Bush’s farewell European tour, the two leaders are expected to coordinate strategy for increasing international pressure on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program and for shoring up NATO’s role in the war in Afghanistan.
Bush’s warm personal bond with Sarkozy -- nicknamed “Sarko the American” -- stands in marked contrast to the chilly relationship the U.S. president had with his predecessor Jacques Chirac, a staunch critic of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But Bush remains deeply unpopular in France, with many people indifferent to his visit and looking to his successor who will be chosen in the November U.S. presidential election.
Bush tried to reach out to the French on Friday. “Recent history has made clear that no disagreement can diminish the deep ties between our nations,” Bush said, apparently referring to the differences over Iraq.
He was effusive in his praise of Sarkozy, who has won favor in Washington especially for taking a harder line against Iran than Chirac’s former government. Iran denies it is trying to build a nuclear bomb and insists its program is strictly for civilian purposes of electricity generation.
Bush also hailed Sarkozy for pledging to send more troops to Afghanistan and for sponsoring a donors’ conference that yielded $20 billion for rebuilding the war-battered country.
Sarkozy, considered France’s most pro-American president in decades, was treated to hamburgers and hot dogs at the Bush family estate in August and received a warm welcome on his first official visit to Washington in November.
Returning the favor, Sarkozy greeted Bush on the steps of the Elysee Palace with a smile and a handshake when he arrived for a private dinner on Friday night.
Sarkozy’s new wife, supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni, welcomed U.S. first lady Laura Bush separately, away from the cameras’ glare.
Media exposure of Sarkozy’s private life contributed to a slump in his popularity to record lows in the first months of this year, but the numbers have recovered slightly.
Since taking office last year, Sarkozy has done much to roll back the legacy of French-U.S. relations left by Chirac, who had angered the Bush administration with his outspoken opposition to military action against Iraq.
That prompted some indignant Americans to rename french fries “freedom fries” and boycott products such as French cheese, drawing heavy publicity but only a modest following.
Heading to Paris, Mrs. Bush, asked about the U.S.-French relationship, told reporters: “I think it’s on the mend.”
But France, like the rest of Europe, is already looking beyond Bush and wondering what a new administration under Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain would do to rebuild America’s damaged image abroad.
A commentary in the Le Monde newspaper by the foreign ministers of France, Spain and Portugal said the end of the Bush era would provide a “historic opportunity” to forge a new U.S.-European partnership “on equal footing”.