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U.S. rebuilds French connection

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

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The country has been at odds with NATO ever since Charles de Gaulle pulled away from the alliance in 1966 over US involvement in Vietnam. More recently, France has pushed for a separate defense confederation within the EU that is seen as a threat to NATO.

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With France leading the EU for six months from this July, however, US defense officials are hopeful that both organizations can develop without acrimony.

A gateway to Europe?

Just a year ago, such discussions might not have been possible. But Sarkozy's embrace of everything American provides "fresh prospects for collaboration," as Eric Edelman, undersecretary for Policy at the Pentagon, put it in a speech last month.

"The devil will be in the details," says one senior Pentagon official speaking on background. "But there has been a maturation of the discussion and debate on both sides."

Many analysts hope strengthening Franco-US relations could lead to a improved strategic relationship between US and Europe. "There is an understanding [in the US] that you may actually now need the Europeans for some things, not only for political reasons but for doing some of the work," says Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a policy research group that promotes transatlantic cooperation. "The Europeans have come to the realization that we can't have the Americans to do all the work for us."

Germany figures prominently in discussions. But some analysts say better Franco-US relations won't lead to a change of heart in the German public, which sees their security interests only incidentally served in that mission. "I don't think necessarily the German Bundestag is through France," says Mr. Townsend.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how far Sarkozy's support on Iran will go if the US considers military options against the country. France's position remains that Iran must suspend enriching uranium before talks can begin.

Other analysts don't believe Sarkozy, whose ratings have tanked in his own country, can pull off significant defense changes. France can't afford to spend more on its military; Sarkozy has just delayed building a second aircraft carrier.

For now, the US is treading unusually softly with its new ally. Last month, Mr. Edelman quoted Sarkozy to US defense officials in making the point that the new and improved US-France relationship does not mean the two will always agree. "Allied does not mean aligned, and I feel entirely free to express our agreements and disagreements forthrightly and candidly – precisely because … France is a friend and ally of the United States," he said.