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U.S. rebuilds French connection

The Pentagon hopes better ties will strengthen NATO and boost the mission in Afghanistan.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer / May 29, 2008

Friends again: French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Bush at the Mount Vernon, Va., home of George Washington in November 2007.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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Washington

Pentagon insiders call it "the Sarkozy moment" – an opportunity to rebuild a relationship with the French government and military made possible by the election last year of Nicolas Sarkozy as French president.

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Mr. Sarkozy's goodwill toward the US has already paid dividends in the form of an additional French combat battalion for Afghanistan. But American defense officials hope an improved relationship will pay off in other ways too, including a stronger NATO alliance, especially since France is expected to take over the next six-month rotation helming the European Union.

The emerging bond between the two countries also represents a change in tone for the Bush administration that, in its remaining months, appears to be more inclined to listen to its allies rather than talk at them, analysts say.

It's in stark contrast to a few years ago when the US and France disagreed vehemently over the invasion of Iraq, capping decades of dissonance over foreign policy. "Thank goodness we're not talking about freedom fries [anymore]," says Jim Townsend, who was principal director for European and NATO policy at the Pentagon and is now vice president at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Why France, US need each other

Since Sarkozy assumed office a year ago this month he has signaled several times that he wants to start over with the US, wiping the slate clean from the previous government under former French President Jacques Chirac.

He has made it clear he shares the US's hawkish stance toward Iran and announced, this January, the construction of a military base in the United Arab Emirates.

US officials are seeking to capitalize on his support and build a partnership through the countries' militaries that will useful for both.

The US needs another strong ally in Europe to help make the case for its war on terrorism. And France wants to return to NATO's integrated military command structure for the first time in 40 years, as it seeks to strengthen the defense posture of the European Union.

The stakes for the relationship are high with the mission in Afghanistan – and the NATO alliance – in the balance.

And as a self-proclaimed military leader on the continent, France needs to ally with other countries amid shrinking defense budgets – including its own – across Europe.

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