Sarkozy uses state visit to praise Britain

President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a cross-channel charm offensive today amid the pomp and politics of a full state visit.

In an impassioned address to both houses of Parliament he heaped praise on Britain and called for the two countries to "write a new page in our common history".

Vowing that France would "never forget" the sacrifice of the Second World War, he hailed a relationship dating back 1,000 years, praising British democracy, the armed forces, the "dynamism" of the UK's cities and way of life.

But on a day of formality and pageantry all eyes were on the first lady, the former supermodel Carla Bruni, on both sides of the channel.

Following weeks of speculation about her first major outing on the world stage as first lady, Ms Bruni curtsied confidently as she met the Queen.

And she received a taste of old-fashioned British chivalry when the Prince of Wales kissed her hand as she stepped off the plane at Heathrow Airport.

The visit has been billed as a chance for Mr Sarkozy to reassert his presidential credentials at home following his very public whirlwind courtship.

Early reaction from across the channel on news websites appeared to be positive.

Ms Bruni drew comparisons with Jackie Kennedy or Diana, Princess of Wales, stepping off the plane in a restrained high-necked grey coat and matching hat.

The contrast could not have been more sharp than with the photographs featured in British newspapers today - showing Ms Bruni posing naked in her modelling days.

But even Ms Bruni's choice of footwear - flat black shoes apparently chosen to reduce the height differential with her 5ft 5in husband - attracted comment.

Tonight the couple were due to be guests of the Queen at a glittering state banquet at Windsor Castle, the main venue for the visit.

They earlier rode through the streets of Windsor in state carriages drawn by teams of white horses and surrounded by liveried footmen.

Ms Bruni, who speaks fluent English, smiled when Charles kissed her gloved hand as she stepped off their plane in spring sunshine.

Salutes were fired from Windsor and the Tower of London as the Marseillaise and God Save The Queen were played.

And amid calls for a new "Entente Amicale" between the two countries, the Queen made Mr Sarkozy an Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.

Before the President addressed parliamentarians, the couple paid a symbolic tribute to British war dead, pausing at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

In his address he received rapturous applause as he paid tribute to the sacrifice of past generations of British servicemen in liberating France.

He said: "On behalf of the people of France, France will never forget.

"France will never forget that when it was virtually wiped out, down on its knees, it was Britain who stood by us."

And in a reference to a very modern war, he hinted that France could be about to step up its commitment in Afghanistan.

In a wide-ranging address he also dealt with topics such as climate change, reform of the European Common Agricultural Policy and the threat from Iran.

Ahead of a Franco-British summit tomorrow, Mr Sarkozy greeted Prime Minister Gordon Brown French style - with a kiss on both cheeks before beginning his address.

Introducing Mr Sarkozy, Commons Speaker Michael Martin seized his chance to remind the President of Scotland's long-standing relationship with France, the "auld alliance".

* Carla Bruni did her best to dress down - quite literally. At 5ft 9in the former supermodel towers over the President's reputed 5ft 5in. But, with Mr Sarkozy sporting chunky stacked heels for his state visit to Britain and Ms Bruni opting for simple flat black shoes, the difference in height was less pronounced.