WASHINGTON – French President Nicolas Sarkozy, opening a new, cozier chapter in relations with the United States, assured an embracing Congress Wednesday that "our friendship and our alliance is strong."
Sarkozy also told lawmakers that such improved relations should lead to much closer cooperation on a host of international problems including Iran's nuclear program, Middle East peace and the stability of Lebanon.
Sarkozy came to Washington seeking to restore the kind of relationship that existed between Paris and Washington before sharp differences arose over the U.S.-led war in Iraq. And he left to a rousing standing ovation — an indication that Sarkozy has quickly shifted the dynamic of French-American relations in his first six months in office.
From Capitol Hill, Sarkozy went to Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, the first U.S. president.
President Bush greeted Sarkozy on the mansion's front lawn, which overlooks a sweeping view of the Potomac Rive and fall foliage. The French leader commented quietly to the president, who remarked "It is beautiful." The two went inside the home for a tour of its rooms, renovated to appear as they did when Washington died in 1799, and for their meeting in the large dining room Washington added to entertain the hundreds of guests who came through Mount Vernon each year.
Speaking through a translator to lawmakers gathered in the chamber of the House of Representatives for a Joint Meeting of Congress, Sarkozy highlighted France's long friendship with the United States. On this U.S. visit, his words — as well as his demeanor — contrasted sharply with the style of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who publicly clashed with Bush over Iraq.
The feeling was mutual.
Sarkozy entered the hallowed chamber amid high pageantry and was greeted by a standing ovation as he headed to the speaker's podium, stopping briefly to shake hands with lawmakers on the way. He left to claps and cheers, pausing again to embrace lawmakers and even to autograph books passed to him by members of Congress.
Sarkozy expressed gratitude in the prepared speech for the U.S. role in liberating France from Nazi occupation in World War II.
"I want to tell you that whenever an American soldier falls somewhere in the world, I think of what the American army did for France," he said. "I think of them, and I am sad, as one is sad to lose a member of one's family."
Sarkozy's address was interrupted by applause several times. It highlighted the improved relations between the two countries. In 1996, many U.S. lawmakers boycotted a similar appearance by Chirac to protest France's nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
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 a speech Wednesday morning to the American Jewish Committee, Sarkozy supported Iran as having a right to civilian nuclear power. If denied, he said, extremist influence in Iran will grow.
Sarkozy, receiving an award from the Jewish group as a tireless promoter of democratic values, human rights and peace, said "there should be a dialogue developed with Iran" that acknowledges its development of civilian nuclear energy.
"I believe that Arab countries, including Iran, have a right to civilian nuclear power," Sarkozy said, specifically including Syria among them.
The Bush administration, which has taken some tentative steps to develop contacts with Iran, is suspicious of non-Arab Iran's nuclear program as aimed at building nuclear weapons, despite Iran's assertions it is working only on civilian power.
Sarkozy denounced anti-Semitism and racism as "beasts" and said France would fight for Israel's security.
At the same time, he said "we have waited too long" for an agreement that establishes a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"It is in the interest of the entire world that there be an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.
Bush welcomed Sarkozy to a black-tie dinner Tuesday night. In his toast, Bush did not mention France's opposition to the war in Iraq. 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," Bush said.
For his part, Sarkozy didn't sidestep the fact that 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," he joked during his toast at a White House dinner where the two leaders dined on lobster bisque and lamb.
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.