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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 November 2007, 11:36 GMT
US warms to new French flavour
As US President George W Bush welcomes his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy on his first official visit to the US, the BBC's Justin Webb charts recent relations between the two countries.

Jacques Chirac and George W Bush (file picture, 2005)
A certain chill developed between France and the US over Iraq

In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the view was that the French had let America down and that there should be consequences.

In cafeterias on Capitol Hill, French fries became "freedom fries" - and French misfortunes like the riots on the streets of Paris were celebrated with grim satisfaction.

Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly was one of those to revel in the discomfort of then President Jacques Chirac.

"For nearly two weeks Chirac has allowed the insurrection to build in ferocity, refusing to use his military, allowing anarchy in the streets. This makes Hurricane Katrina look like a comic book," he said.

Away from the bombast of Fox News, there was a serious side to the issue: ordinary Americans, such as World War II veterans, who felt let down by the French.

The French - not surprisingly - fought back, claiming that the attacks they saw in the media were outrageous.

At one point, Jean David Lavitte, the French ambassador to Washington, went so far as to complain about briefings given by the White House to US journalists.

Although the Bush administration denied any concerted effort to denigrate the French, it certainly felt as if a real froideur had come to stay in US-French relations.

Iraq and Sarkozy

But then two things happened.

One was that the Iraq war went badly off-track, prompting left-wing Americans to point out what they saw as the absurdity of the battles with the French.

Presidents George W Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy in Maine, August 2007
Mr Bush invited Mr Sarkozy to his family home in Maine in August

Earlier this year, talk show host Bill Maher quipped: "New rule: conservatives have to stop rolling their eyes every time they hear the word 'France', like just calling something French is the ultimate argument winner.

"As if to say, what can you say about a country that was too stupid to get on board with our wonderfully conceived and brilliantly executed war in Iraq."

The other thing that happened was the election of Mr Sarkozy in May.

Living up to his billing as pro-American, he took his summer holiday in the US and met President Bush at the family home in Maine for an informal lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers.

And in an interview with an American television network, Mr Sarkozy bowled them over with his story of how his father thought his surname would be more acceptable in the US than in France.

"Well, he was proven wrong," he said. "But that's what he thought - that a name like Sarkozy was a handicap.

"That's the reason why I like the US - you can be called Schwarzenegger and be governor of California. You can be called Madeleine Albright and be secretary of state, Colin Powell or Condi Rice can succeed.

"That's a free country, that's a democratic country, a country that gives a chance to each and every one of its children."

'Colourful character'

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank, says Mr Sarkozy is now lodged in the minds of Americans as their kind of guy.

I think that we are stronger if we stick together
John Bolton
Former US ambassador to the UN

"He's colourful and therefore the American media has given us more of him. They didn't give us much Jacques Chirac, unless he was kicking in the teeth - so that's a difference as well.

"Beyond that, we tend to agree with him [Sarkozy] on some things and this, too, is refreshing.

"He seems to want the French to work harder, to be more productive - we like that."

As a result, hopes are high - and it's not just the touchy-feely stuff.

Some Americans, among them former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, believe real change might be in the offing.

He has called for the new mood to be backed by action from France.

"Will France rejoin the integrated Nato military command which it left under de Gaulle?

"I hope that they do, under terms that are satisfactory to the alliance as a whole, because I think we face common threats - domestically, in Europe, as well as internationally - and I think that we are stronger if we stick together.

"That's why the change in approach at the presidential level in France is potentially so important."

'Renewed affection'

The last word comes from John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate once condemned by an unnamed Bush administration official as "looking French".

John Kerry
Mr Kerry: attacked during the 2004 presidential race for 'looking French'

Mr Kerry says that the period of tense relations is behind both countries now and proper respect has been restored.

"President Sarkozy has forcefully and overtly expressed his affection for the US, has already been over here and met with President Bush.

"There's a very different relationship in the workings of our government right now and people know that.

"People have always had affection for the relationship between the US and France - it goes way back and I think that's been renewed."

Mr Kerry does look slightly French - but these days, it no longer matters.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Sarkozy walks out of a US interview



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