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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 August 2007, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Maine lunch renews France-US relations
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The menu was hamburger or hot dog, with baked beans an optional extra. The setting was the Bush family compound at Kennebunkport on the coast of Maine. The hosts were the president plus his family and the guest was the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, minus his family (his sometimes absent wife Cecilia had a sore throat).

US President George W Bush takes French President Nicholas Sarkozy on a boat trip off Maine, driven by former US President George H Bush, 11 August 2007
The aim of the gathering was for the two leaders to bond in a family setting
The dress code was relaxed and President Sarkozy wore jeans. The atmosphere, too, was informal. Mr Bush, asked by the press corps to try a word or two in French, managed to joke that he had problems enough with English.

"The best way we can do things - best way we send a good signal to President Sarkozy is invite here at the family house. I've got a lot of my brothers around, my sister, my daughters," he declared, as transcribed by the White House.

The intention, apparently successful, was to relaunch relations over an American family-style lunch to show that the coolness of the age of Jacques Chirac, with the rift over Iraq, was over.

Mr Sarkozy had already sent his own signal that he is at ease with the United States by deciding to go on holiday in the neighbouring state of New Hampshire. Both sides took advantage of that proximity.

Issues

The French newspaper Le Monde enthusiastically quoted the White House press secretary Tony Snow. "We are at the dawn of a new era in Franco-American relations," he said.

US President George W Bush and his wife Laura welcome French President Nicholas Sarkozy to Maine, 11 August 2007
Mr Sarkozy has made it clear he is comfortable with the US
Up to a point. Franco-American relations go through tremendous upheavals from time to time, interspersed with jollities like the Maine get-together, in which the memory of French support for the American colonists is usually evoked, as it was on Saturday.

This is an American administration on the defensive and on the way out and it is unlikely that France will want to get too close to it. Style is one thing. Substance is another. It is entirely possible that there could be another rift if the Bush administration decides to take military action against Iran.

French reluctance to take a major combat role in Afghanistan is another potential problem point. But it is also true that the issue of Iraq has been set aside, with the French careful not to say (too loudly): "We told you so."

In their approaches to crises elsewhere in the world - Darfur and Lebanon especially - the two governments are closer.

European attitudes

The arrival of the energetic Mr Sarkozy of course coincides with the emergence of Gordon Brown as the new UK prime minister.

This combination poses questions for US policy makers (and for other European ones as well). It is not clear how it will evolve in the complex web of relations between the European states.

But one thing is clear. Both are wedded to preserving a national foreign policy, as was seen recently in Mr Sarkozy's dealings with Libya. He helped to get the Bulgarian nurses released but he also came up with the sale to Libya of French arms and a nuclear power station, which other EU states knew nothing about.

France with Sarkozy and Britain under Brown are going to act tactically together but neither wants to submerge their foreign policy into a European structure. The proposed new EU treaty is carefully written to avoid any such inundation.

The likelihood is that for the foreseeable future the US will not have to deal with a powerful new European Union. Only on isolated issues does the EU act as one, though that is one way, perhaps the only way, to influence US policy. It was the unity of Britain, France and Germany over negotiating with Iran about its nuclear programme that eventually prompted a similar approach from Washington.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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