KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine – President Bush welcomed French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday for a "heart-to-heart" talk on world issues and to repair relations with France.
"We have had disagreements on Iraq in particular," Bush said as the French president arrived at the seaside vacation home of Bush's parents. "But I've never allowed disagreements to not find other ways to work together."
The White House billed the event as a casual meal between two leaders just getting to know each other.
But Bush said the two would also talk for 45 minutes on world issues, including Iran, where he wants Sarkozy's aid in halting Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
"We'll have a heart-to-heart talk," Bush said. "We'll be talking about a lot of key issues. The good thing about President Sarkozy is you know where he stands. He can tell you exactly what he thinks. I hope he'd say the same thing about me."
The French president had his own warm words, part of an overt attempt by the leaders of both countries to warm their nations' chilled relations. Sarkozy called the United States a longtime friend, one he admires for trying to spread freedom around the world.
"France is friends with democracies, not with dictatorships," Sarkozy said.
"Do we agree on everything? No," he said, an apparent reference to the divisive Iraq war. "Because even in family, there are disagreements. But we are still the same family."
Sarkozy arrived alone on a sparkling day. His wife, Cecilia, canceled at the last meeting because she and her kids were sick. She informed first lady Laura Bush in a phone call, and President Bush said the family understood. Sarkozy said they had sore throats.
By welcoming Sarkozy to his parents' seaside home, Bush is laying a foundation for what he hopes are drastically improved relations with France over the rest of his term. In turn, the newly elected Sarkozy is eager to bond with Bush and display a pro-American mind-set.
As he waited for Sarkozy to arrive, Bush stood with his wife and his parents. The president started chatting with reporters, which turned into an impromptu news conference.
Then Sarkozy came in looking casual in blue jeans and a sportscoat. After a series of warm greetings all around, Bush prodded him to address the media, too.
"Want to ask him a couple of questions?" Bush said. "He's never shy about the press."
In a place renowned for its lobster, the Bush family opted for picnic fare: hot dogs and hamburgers, baked beans, corn on the cob and blueberry pie.
The menu selection raised some eyebrows among the visiting French press; Laura Bush said the family wanted Sarkozy to enjoy an all-American meal.
Aides emphasized that the meeting was not viewed as a summit, but a social meal between two world leaders who happen to be vacationing near each other in New England.
But there is more to it than a get-to-know-you.
"It would be impossible to think of Jacques Chirac stopping by Kennebunkport for lunch," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow for Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "This speaks volumes for the desires on both sides to try to turn the page."
Chirac, the former French president, had a bitter relationship with Bush. He opposed the war in Iraq and clashed with Bush over climate change and other matters.
Sarkozy, by contrast, has promised that the United States "can count on our friendship," while reminding Bush that friendship means respecting differing views.
So this lunch, casual as it may be, marks the symbolic start of something more: the "new era of relations with the French," as White House spokesman Tony Snow put it.
In a telling sign, Sarkozy apparently never considered postponing the date even after he had to dash from his New Hampshire vacation spot back to Paris for a funeral on Friday.
Sarkozy flew back to the United States right after, arriving Friday night. He is expected to get to the Bush compound late Saturday morning and visit for a couple of hours.
Sarkozy gives Bush a chance to shore up support in the core of Europe, although the new leader has clearly echoed Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war.
"Bush realizes that Europeans have either left Iraq or they're heading for the exits," Kupchan said. "And the Europeans may not think the war was a wise move, but they've stopped the finger-pointing. I think it's safe to say that both sides have put Iraq behind them."
That still leaves plenty of ground for Bush to build new ties with France. Building pressure against Iran to halt its suspected nuclear weapons pursuits is one area; pushing the U.N. Security Council to speed up humanitarian efforts in the Darfur region is another.
Then there's Afghanistan, where Sarkozy has shown ambivalence about the French mission.
"I don't think the French are getting ready to pull their troops out," Kupchan said. "But the last thing Bush wants is for the French, the Germans or others to go wobbly on Afghanistan. If a major country were to do so, the whole coalition could start unraveling."
In France, Sarkozy caused a considerable stir by opting to be in the United States for his first extended vacation as president. He chose Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H., about 50 miles from the rocky shores of the Bush compound known as Walker's Point.
Sarkozy said he wanted to see the real America -- small towns and tranquility. He made unintended news, however, by getting into a public flap with American photographers.