Image: Nicolas Sarkozy, George Bush
Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images
President Bush greets French President Nicolas Sarkozy Tuesday at the White House. Sarkozy is making his first official trip to Washington since taking office in May.
updated 11/8/2007 11:36:30 AM ET 2007-11-08T16:36:30

“Freedom fries” are so yesterday — replaced now by lobster bisque and lamb at an elegant White House dinner, where President Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday officially open a cozier chapter in U.S.-French relations.

The two countries back tough diplomacy to keep Iran from having nuclear weapons. They have jointly sponsored U.N. 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.

Even before he was elected in May, Sarkozy has worked to mend relations with the U.S. that were bruised by former French President Jacques Chirac’s clash with Bush, especially over the war.

“I never quite understood why we had to fight with the United States,” Sarkozy said of disagreements over the Iraq war.

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

Leader follows U.S. example
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 out into the Atlantic Ocean, 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 U.S.-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 British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 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 them: major league baseball pitcher Tom Glavine, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, French chef Guy Savoy and a number of politicians from Louisiana.

Sarkozy: 'We need to be firm' with Iran
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 that France would stick to a tough line on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

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

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

“In the Congress, there is a portrait of George Washington, but also Lafayette. I want to continue in this tradition,” Sarkozy said, referring to the French nobleman, the Marquis de Lafayette, who played a key role as an aide to Washington in the American revolution against British rule.

Sarkozy will work to affirm Europe’s right to shape policy debates on some of the most challenging problems facing the world, including climate change, Nicholas Dungan, president of the French-American Foundation, said in an interview just before meeting with Sarkozy at a reception at the French Embassy.

“I think he’s message will be: ’France is going to be a reliable partner, but at the same time, we have ideas of our own. We intend to be able to bring those ideas forward in a constructive way, and if we listen to each other, we can work well together,”’ Dungan said.

There will be no first lady accompanying the French president. Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, announced their divorce on Oct. 18, a first for a French head of state. U.S. reporters questioned whether Sarkozy would bring a date to dinner, but the White House sidestepped the matter.

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