Published on Taipei Times

Sarkozy hopes to `reconquer' US hearts

Friday, Nov 09, 2007, Page 7

French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week launched his campaign to "reconquer" US hearts with a flurry of kisses, an all-water friendship toast and a rock-star welcome from the US Congress.

To hear US President George W. Bush tell it, Sarkozy could declare "mission accomplished."

"You sent a very clear message. It's clear that you're a man who does what he says he's going to do. It's the kind of fellow I like to deal with," Bush said at a joint press conference.

Invited to the White House for a formal dinner on Tuesday, "Sarko the American" smooched first lady Laura Bush on the cheeks and hand and later clinked water glasses with Bush, who is a fellow non-drinker.

"I wish to reconquer the heart of America and I wish to reconquer the heart of America in a lasting fashion," the French president told an approving audience of French and US VIPs in the State Dining Room.

US guests, most of them staunch supporters of Bush, swooned over Sarkozy and welcomed his quip that "one can be a friend of America, and yet win elections in France" with laughter and applause.

"It's safe to say that you've impressed a lot of people here," Bush said one day later. "You bring a lot of energy, enthusiasm for your job, love of your country and a strong set of universal values in your heart."

Sarkozy returned the favor, hailing Bush's "open-mindedness" and telling reporters that their summit went forward "in a spirit of openness and trust. And that is something I have been particularly struck by."

The French president also won an enthusiastic welcome from US lawmakers, delivering a rare address on Wednesday to a joint session of the US Congress -- a speech interrupted more than 20 times by applause or standing ovations.

"He's really connected with the American public in a deep sense," said Kenneth Weinstein, chief executive officer at the pro-free market Hudson Institute think tank in Washington and a guest at the White House dinner.

"I can't think of a world leader treated this warmly in the US since [former British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher -- maybe [anti-apartheid icon] Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, [former Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev," he said.

That warmth was on display before the dinner, as the two leaders enjoyed some back-slapping bonhomie as they posed for photographs with a long line of French and US guests.

It also contested with the more formal, often strained, relationship between Bush and Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who spearheaded world opposition to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"President Bush and president Chirac had friendly meetings, but there was always an underlying tension," former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan said.

"Chirac had a view that France and Europe needed to be a counterweight to American influence and power. That created some real tension," he said.

The warmer Bush-Sarkozy relationship "doesn't mean they will always agree, but it takes away the tension and means fewer obstacles to overcome to find a common way forward," he said.