Spirit of Lafayette hovers over the 'Maison Blanche'

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The Independent US

Not since Lafayette arrived in 1777 to help see off the Brits has a Frenchman landed upon these shores to such a rousing welcome. And it's a safe bet that even the 19-year-old Marquis didn't pack as much into his day as bouncing, bounding Sarko.

One moment Nicolas Sarkozy (pronounced in the US to rhyme with "cosy") was pinning medals on American war heros; the next, he was waxing lyrical on his love of the US to an audience of businessmen. Then it was off to the White House for a lavish non-state dinner in the State Dining Room – lamb and lobster on the menu, not "freedom fries"' of recent memory – as a warm-up for his address to Congress yesterday.

While Sarko has been in town, France and all things French have been the rage in Washington. Gone was the frightful, supercilious Chirac, the spat over Iraq, and the days when John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign foundered on a whisper from the White House that the Democratic candidate "looked French".

The dinner was described by the Washington Post's gossip columnist as featuring "one of the most uninspired guest lists in White House reporting history". But that didn't stop George Bush – famous for once claiming that France's problem was that it didn't have a word for entrepreneur – from getting so carried away he even managed a few words in the language of Molière: "Bienvenue a la Maison Blanche."

That, however, was nothing compared to the effusions of the man known by his sceptical countrymen as Sarko l'Américain, and who proved it by spending his first summer holidays as president by a lake in New Hampshire. "I wish to reconquer the heart of America," he told the guests. The unattached ladies among them might have noted that, unlike the Marquis, married at the age of 16, Sarko is newly single.

One way and another, the benign shade of Lafayette, born in 1757 has presided over the entire visit. The dinner featured a special 250th birthday cake in his honour. Afterwards, everyone had to sit through a costumed sketch depicting Washington and the Marquis, whom the first American President treated like a son.

Yesterday, Bush accompanied Sarkozy on a trip to Mount Vernon, Washington's family home, a dozen miles south of the capital. And what was the special attraction? An exhibition about Lafayette, naturellement.

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