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Bruni and Sarkozy disarm the British in cross-Channel charm offensive

France's first couple breeze past centuries of British-French antagonism on two-day state visit.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent / March 28, 2008

‘Bon AppEtit’: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II welcomed French President Nicolas Sarkozy (seated at her right) to Windsor Castle Wednesday.

Anwar Hussein/WireImage

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They have perhaps the longest international rivalry in the history of the nation state, a mutual disdain rooted in generations of medieval war, decades of imperialistic antagonism and a cultural dissonance that persists to this day.

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But are Britain and France about to kiss and make up?

A frisson of "fraternité," "entente amicale," and "amitié was rippling through Britain's political class (not to mention the usually francophobe tabloid press) Thursday after one of the most remarkable state visits by a French leader since World War II.

Nicolas Sarkozy, ridiculed at home for his vulgar ways and "bling-bling" taste in accessories (and women), stunned British parliamentarians with a speech of exquisite praise for all things English and a call for a new 21st-century brotherhood between the old adversaries.

There was an extraordinary declaration of thanks for the Churchillian resolve that helped rescue France "when it was virtually wiped out, down on its knees," an expression of gratitude that it is hard to imagine his predecessors ever giving.

There were concrete proposals – for Britain to join France at the heart of Europe, working together to solve some of the big global issues of the day such as climate change, energy, immigration, security, and Afghanistan.

And there was a grand overture: "that together we write a new page in our shared history, that of a new Franco-British brotherhood – a brotherhood for the 21st century."

Members of Parliament didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Formal state visits, steeped in pomp and ceremony and regal protocol, are usually substance-lite. Denis MacShane, a Labour MP, notable francophile, and biographer of former President François Mitterand, said it was the most interesting state visit in many years.

"What was interesting was the tone of his words, the way he spoke, the warmth," Mr. MacShane says. "He was remarkably complimentary about Britain. He knows how to stroke the Brits the right way."

"Sarkozy wants to close the chapter of Gaullism," MacShane adds. "Mitterand and [former French President Jacques] Chirac always kept the British at a distance."

Newspapers returned Mr. Sarkozy's compliments with interest. Tabloids swooned at his supermodel wife, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, who cut a classy, demure figure at a royal banquet on Wednesday night, inviting comparison, albeit perhaps hyperbolic, to Jackie Kennedy and Princess Diana.

In short, it was all a far cry from the usual petulance that has characterized Franco-British relations for a lifetime. Yes, it's been a long time since the two squared off across a battlefield (you have to go back to 1815 for that). But diplomatic hostilities have broken out with unedifying regularity since World War II.

There was Charles de Gaulle's bid to prevent Britain entering the European Union in 1967. There were long-running feuds over a French ban on British beef, France's refugee center located right by the Channel Tunnel, and Britain's EU financial contributions.

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