Better times with France ahead?

French President Sarkozy's US visit symbolizes a return to a more balanced and interdependent relationship.

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy tours George Washington's hilltop home at Mount Vernon with President Bush Wednesday, it will mark more than just a dramatic warming in relations between Washington and Paris.

With the new French president visiting a weakened and chastened America post-Iraq invasion, the tour of Mount Vernon symbolizes a return to the more balanced and interdependent relationship at the root of Franco-American ties. Just as Washington needed the France of Marquis de Lafayette to help break the Colonies' bonds to England, today France prefers an America that needs – and knows it needs – its longstanding Western friends to achieve its goals.

It was clear that Franco-American relations reached a nadir as former French President Jacques Chirac actively opposed the American drive to invade Iraq. But it is also clear that the pro-American Mr. Sarkozy is enabled politically to express his Yankee love as a result of changed circumstances. Unlike Mr. Chirac, who had to deal with an America that acted, as one French observer quipped, like a "hyperpower," Sarkozy is visiting at the time of a humbler America, its go-it-alone tendencies clipped.

"Sarkozy arrives at a good moment for this partnership for two important reasons," says Simon Serfaty, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "[The United States] thought we could do things alone, but the unipolar moment is over and the administration has learned that we need allies," he says. And second, "Under Sarkozy the French have reasserted themselves not as the ally of choice, but as the ally most able to get things done."

High atop the two presidents' agenda is Iran. The leaders agree that Iran must never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. Sarkozy has endorsed the Bush approach of parallel sanctions outside the United Nations context – in Sarkozy's case, within the European Union.

The Bush administration's fourth-quarter drive for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is also buoyed by the change in French leadership earlier this year. Sarkozy is the most pro-Israel French president in decades, a shift that reinforces the role of the European Union within the Quartet of powers (the US, the EU, the UN, and Russia) pressing for Middle East peace. "Sarkozy is the first French president since 1967 that Israel actually likes, and that's significant," says Mr. Serfaty.

Certainly the Bush administration is signaling its great expectations for a revitalized Franco-American friendship. In addition to the Mount Vernon visit, Bush was to host the French president at a state dinner – something he has done sparingly – Tuesday night. Also on Wednesday, Sarkozy is to address a joint session of Congress (where French fries are proudly back on the menu in place of the jingoistic freedom fries).

But analysts also caution against expecting too much too fast.

"The visit has enormous potential, but it's too easy to exaggerate that we have already turned the page," says Charles Kupchan, a US foreign-policy expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "Sarkozy is more pro-American; he is something of a renegade. He would relish breaking the trend and dispensing with the Gaullist ambition to set France and the European Union as rivals of the US. But so far it's mostly rhetoric," he adds. "It's happy talk about restoring relations with Washington, but not much else."

The White House will be looking for concrete steps, Mr. Kupchan adds – perhaps a firm announcement on French assistance to NATO's battle in Afghanistan, or on sanctions against Iran. Another prospect: putting meat on the bones of Sarkozy's hints that France may be ready to reintegrate into NATO's central command. "This week would be a good time to close the [NATO] deal," Kupchan says.

But at the same time, expecting too much too soon could return the chill to relations. Chirac also addressed a joint session of Congress in 1996, with a speech that suggested a rose-colored partnership was in the offing, Serfaty notes. It didn't take the Iraq war to see that it was not to be.

Sarkozy will also need concrete steps from the US that he can present to a public and institutional environment that remains at least anti-Bush. For example, will the US bend on opening NATO's command structure to European leadership?

"The US needs its European partners, and in that context the French in many ways should be the strongest ally," says Kupchan. "But there are also significant limitations on both sides, so if we expect something revolutionary, there's going to be disappointment."

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