WASHINGTON – French President Nicolas Sarkozy opened a new, cozier chapter in U.S.-French relations, saying he came to Washington with a simple message: "I wish to reconquer the heart of America in a lasting fashion."
Yet Sarkozy, whose trip included a scheduled address to Congress on Wednesday, didn't sidestep the fact that President Bush and the war in Iraq remain unpopular in his country.
"I also came to say that one can be a friend of America, and yet win elections in France," Sarkozy joked during his toast at a White House dinner where the two leaders dined on lobster bisque and lamb.
That's not something Bush would have heard from former French President Jacques Chirac who publicly clashed with Bush, especially over the war.
Sarkozy's address to a joint meeting of Congress will highlight the improved relations. In 1996, many U.S. lawmakers boycotted a similar appearance by Chirac to protest France's nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
Sarkozy will reflect broadly on his vision for French-American relations but will not to make great policy announcements, according to the French Embassy.
Iran and the Middle East peace efforts were likely to dominate Sarkozy's discussions with Bush as the two countries look to build on their warmer relations to look for ways to improve policy coordination.
In his toast Tuesday night, Bush didn't mention France's opposition to the war. Instead, he spoke of working with France to help others around the world resist tyranny and oppression.
"French and American troops are helping defend a young democracy in Afghanistan," said Bush, who was taking Sarkozy at midday Wednesday to Mount Vernon, which was the Virginia home of George Washington.
"Our two nations support the democratic government in Lebanon. We agree that reconciliation and democracy in Iraq are vital to the future of the Middle East. And our two nations condemn violations of human rights in Darfur, in Burma and around the world," Bush said.
Sarkozy — known in France as "Sarko the American" — described the U.S.-French relationship as "simple," yet "always beautiful." In his remarks in the State Dining Room, he spoke with passion about freedom and liberty and the need for U.S.-French cooperation in addressing terrorism, nuclear proliferation, poverty and religious fanaticism.
"I've come to Washington to bear a very simple, straightforward message. ... I wish to re-conquer the heart of America. I want to re-conquer the heart of America in a lasting fashion," he said.
The French president also paid tribute to American veterans who fought in World War II and ended by proclaiming "Long live Franco-American friendship."
Sarkozy, who was seated next to first lady Laura Bush, came to the White House alone. He and his wife, Cecilia, announced their divorce on Oct. 18, a first for a French head of state.
The U.S. and France back tough diplomacy to keep Iran from having nuclear weapons. They have jointly sponsored U.N. resolutions supporting Lebanese sovereignty. And while France fiercely opposed the war in Iraq, Sarkozy sent his foreign minister on a surprise three-day trek to Baghdad in August to enhance France's role in Iraq's future.
"I never quite understood why we had to fight with the United States," Sarkozy said earlier in the day at a meeting of the French-American Business Council.
Sarkozy, an energetic 52-year-old conservative, has wasted no time in his bid to modernize France, in part by trying to inject an American-style work ethic. As a sign of his pro-American tendencies, he took a summer vacation in the United States, causing a stir back home.
In August, he visited Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H., about 50 miles from the Bush compound known as Walker's Point. Sarkozy stopped by the Bush family compound, which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, and the two leaders took a speed boat ride and had an American-style picnic of hot dogs, hamburgers and baked beans.