Page last updated at 17:53 GMT, Thursday, 27 March 2008

French relief after successful UK trip

By Hugh Schofield

The French watched in apprehension as their new presidential couple had a first "trial by protocol" in the time-hallowed surroundings of Westminster and Windsor.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy bid farewell to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in Windsor
The Sarkozys seemed to have gone down a storm in the UK

Would their diminutive leader look ridiculous next to the lofty Prince Philip? Would he commit another of his foreign-trip gaffes by giving a "bise" (kiss) to the Queen, or getting his mobile out at the banquet to check the France-England score?

And what about Carla? Would she overplay her sexiness, or look arrogant, or let the British papers make her a laughing stock?

With an almost audible sigh of relief, the nation perceived that none of its fears had been realised.

Quite the contrary: the Sarkozys seemed to have gone down a storm.

Interestingly, the French press the next day reported less on the actual visit and more on how the British press reported it.

Newspapers carried headlines such as "When the British press suddenly starts liking the French" - a highly unusual turn of events in French eyes - or "The English conquered by Carla".

The advantage of this kind of visit is that there is almost no political or diplomatic risk unless one really works at it

It was as if the nation could not come to its own opinion about the presidential couple until it saw how they went down abroad.

And as it turned out, "les rosbifs" were bowled over.

"Did you see her, our first lady, how she curtseyed before Her Majesty? The gentle genuflexion, the hair soberly coiffed with a grey beret, the long coat revealing a blue dress and a hint of knee? So beautiful, so elegant," purred an editorial in Le Progres newspaper.

Blog approval

The blogosphere took up the cry.

"I found Carla superb, and France should stop criticising her and instead be proud to have a first lady who is so beautiful and intelligent. I think she is far better than Cecilia [Mr Sarkozy's ex-wife] and will be a real asset to her husband," wrote Maya on Le Point news magazine's website.

"Yes our first lady is superb. Pretty as a picture, luminous, refreshing. What elegance, what class. And what's more, she is intelligent and writes songs. We have not lost anything in the exchange. Bye bye Cecilia," said Marika.

A crowned head receiving you on an official visit - what better way to resanctify the presidential function? The Queen is certainly not bling bling
Le Canard Enchaine
French satirical newspaper

As for Nicolas Sarkozy, if the plan was to use British royal pomp to burnish his damaged reputation, then it may well have worked.

Even the satirical Le Canard Enchaine - no friend of Sarkozy - said that the visit was "perfectly timed to hammer home the message that our omnipresident has 'changed'".

"A crowned head receiving you on an official visit - what better way to resanctify the presidential function?" it said.

"The Queen is certainly not bling bling."

Touch of class

As many commentators have pointed out in France, the elaborate ritual surrounding any state visit to the UK played perfectly into Mr Sarkozy's hands.

As nothing is ever allowed to go wrong on such occasions, he could bask in the majesty of his hosts - and hope a little would rub off on the way.

"Respect for the forms and codes is vital on state visits - especially to Britain where tradition plays such a large role," said Olivier Hill, director of the school of political science in Grenoble.

"For Sarkozy, the setting was just right for him to get across the message to the French that he does know how to be presidential. It augurs well if he really means to conduct the presidency in a different way," he said.

In his speech to the Houses of Parliament, President Sarkozy said how grateful France was to Britain for its defence of freedom and democracy.

He might have added a personal note of thanks to the British crown for giving his presidency a touch of royal class.

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