The state visit of President Nicolas Sarkozy to Britain will be marked by much ceremonial glitter. Over the next 48 hours, the president and the almost equally famous Mme Carla Bruni-Sarkozy will take tea with the Queen, ride in state carriages through the streets of Windsor and attend two official banquets.
Sometimes the glamorous rituals that punctuate a presidential visit mask tensions, or much worse, between the two countries. At least on this occasion there is hope that the public harmony will be reflected in constructive private talks between the French president and Gordon Brown. There are strong indications that the two of them have a rapport, established when they were both finance ministers in 2004. Furthermore, there are no pivotal policy areas over which the two countries take markedly different positions as there was over the Iraq war, when Tony Blair broke with both France and Germany to pursue his calamitous alliance with President Bush.
In such a benevolent climate, Gordon Brown has an opportunity to cement a close working relationship with President Sarkozy and in doing so place Britain a little closer to the heart of Europe. Even with an enlarged union, the Franco-German relationship has tended to shape the priorities and broader agenda in Europe. On the basis of its economic strength alone, Britain should have been an equally important player. Instead, it has chosen to spend most of the time moaning on the sidelines or giving priority to its so-called special relationship with the US.
Now there is a chance that Britain really could have an influential role, by working closely with both France and Germany, rather than apart. Such a development would be positive for Europe – and in spite of the Euro-sceptics' neurotic outpourings, it would also be in Britain's self-interest. Britain's main alliance must be with our closest neighbours, working together as far as it is possible to do so over common interests and challenges.
There are, inevitably, grounds for caution in spite of the warm public words that will accompany the ceremonial activities of the visit. Mr Blair was, in some ways, more instinctively pro-European than Mr Brown. When he was prime minister, he raised on several occasions the prospect of a new tripartite era in Europe in which Britain would dance together with France and Germany. He ended up dancing to the tunes of President Bush.
In his early months as prime minister, Mr Brown was reluctant to highlight the values of Britain's membership of the European Union. He preferred to present the Lisbon Treaty as something close to the plague – in effect arguing that there was no need for voters to worry since Britain was keeping its distance by hanging on to all its opt-outs. But recently Mr Brown has dared to put a more positive case for Europe. He has good cause to do so. He is luckier than his predecessor, who had the wily President Chirac and the weak Chancellor Schroeder to deal with. In President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel, Mr Brown's allies are more formidable, but also more forward-looking.
The presidential visit is not just a potentially significant staging post in Britain's erratic European journey. A stronger Anglo-French relationship could have wider consequences. Britain and France remain permanent members of the Security Council. They are nuclear powers, the only significant military forces in Europe to the west of Russia. They are two of the largest economies in the world. It is better for Britain, France and for the rest of the world if the two countries are working closely together rather than damaging themselves by feuding from a distance.