'Sarkozy the American' secures warm welcome in Washington

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The French President Nicolas Sarkozy will address the US Congress today, praising American values and a rekindled Franco-American friendship, while attacking US policies on Iraq and global warming.

M. Sarkozy, on his first visit to Washington since his election six months ago, seems assured of a full house and a warm welcome. He has made a series of self-consciously pro-American statements and gestures since taking office. He was hailed in a CBS documentary last month as "Sarkozy, the American".

Many senators and congressmen boycotted the last speech by a French president on Capitol Hill, which was given by Jacques Chirac in 1996 soon after he revived France's nuclear tests in the Pacific. M. Chirac's relationship with America was always cool but plunged even further into the deep-freeze after he campaigned against the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003. French fries were re-named "Freedom fries" by frog-bashing, right-wing radio hosts, US sales of French wine plunged and President George Bush announced that M. Chirac would not be "invited to the ranch any time soon".

President Sarkozy, who arrived in Washington last night for a dinner with Mr Bush at the White House, has been attacked by the French left, and some figures on the right, for steering too far in the other direction. In August, he attended a hotdog picnic with Mr Bush and family in Maine. He has talked of ending France's 40-year self-imposed exile from the military structures of Nato. Both the French President and his Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, have supported America's tough line against Iran's nuclear programme. "The trial has started: I am accused of being a friend of America," M. Sarkozy said last month. "OK. Don't torture me. I confess."

In fact, most domestic critics have complained not so much about President Sarkozy's admiration for America as his failure to speak out strongly enough against the Bush administration's policies on Iraq and climate change. M. Sarkozy is expected to tackle both issues in his Capitol Hill address today. But most of the speech will be devoted to praising the 200-year relationship between "friends who have never fought against one another" and claiming that a new era in Franco-US relations has dawned.

President Sarkozy will also have further talks with Mr Bush today at Mount Vernon, the ancestral home of George Washington, a few miles down the Potomac river . French officials have played down the possibility of any substantial gesture by Mr Bush on climate change. After observing the George Bush-Tony Blair relationship for several years, they have come to the conclusion that "friends" are welcome to the Bush White House but do not often receive going-home presents.

The origins of M. Sarkozy's often-declared admiration for the US are unclear. Some politicians within his own centre-right party suggest that it was, in fact, his estranged wife, Cécilia, who was the great Americaphile.

In M. Sarkozy's personal life, the US has mostly been a source of pain. His Hungarian-born father left his family and ran away to America when M. Sarkozy was a child. The President's marriage never recovered from his wife's decision to leave him in 2005. She spent 10 months living in New York with another man.

M. Sarkozy, colleagues say, showed little interest in the US until recent years. Like many things the President does, one UMP deputy suggested, "his love of America is shaped by Chirac's difficulties with America. Above all things, Sarkozy craves the appearance of being different from what went before". Opposition politicians have seized on M. Sarkozy's détente with America as a possible chink in his domestic popularity.

The centrist presidential candidate, Francois Bayrou, suggests M. Sarkozy intends to copy the American model, not just in foreign policy. "All his choices suggest he is leading France away from resistance to the dominant American social model and towards alignment with it," he said.

In truth, M. Sarkozy's economic and social policy remains fiercely and idiosyncratically French. He has tried to combine cuts in taxes and appeals for a more entrepreunerial, can-do spirit with a statist belief in industrial policy and political management of the euro exchange rate.