Leading article: Mr Sarkozy places France at the centre of Europe

The region as a whole will benefit from improved UK-French relations

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To the British eye, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France appears the very model of Gallic style and verve – and never more so than when he shares a stage with that most stolid of Scots, Gordon Brown.

At their joint press conference at Downing Street yesterday, the contrast in manner was as sharp as ever, but a new air of understanding, almost bonhomie, seemed to have settled on what was once one of the less comfortable bilateral relationships in the European Union.

A cynic might hazard that the greater congeniality – what Mr Brown ambitiously called the entente cordiale à grande vitesse –reflected relief on the part of both that, given the proximity of the British election, their days of dealing with each other could well be numbered. A more positive interpretation would be that the UK-France relationship is entering one of its periodic upturns; that we are at one of those points when our two countries recognise that, whoever is in government, there is more that unites us than divides us.

Certainly, on the vexed issue of financial regulation, and specifically regulation of hedge funds – a central topic of their lunch discussion – the two seemed determined that not a Gauloises-paper come between them. Ministers were still working on it, they said. They were confident that agreement could be reached by next week's deadline. As for a banking levy, Mr Brown and Mr Sarkozy were of one mind; they would be making common cause within the G20.

They were also at one in their condemnation of the US decision to change the terms of a tendering process for aircraft refuelling tankers in such a way as to exclude the European-led consortium that had initially won the contract. While both expressed disappointment and accused the US of protectionism, it was Mr Sarkozy who made the running. This was no way, he said, for the US to treat its European allies. If the US wanted to be anti-protectionist, it should make sure what it did matched what it said.

The French President's strong words were all the more striking for the fact that he and his wife will at the end of this month be enjoying the hospitality of the Obamas at the White House. This is a visit expected to be distinguished by the same sort of privileged informality as the Blairs used to enjoy with the Clintons and then the Bushes. And the impression is growing that Mr Sarkozy, who began his presidency by mending the transatlantic fences smashed by his predecessor's stance on Iraq and who then led France back into the command structures of Nato, is on course to be Washington's new best European friend.

Mr Sarkozy's attack on US protectionism may be a sign that he will not be a pushover and intends to use that position for some straight-talking. If so, that could be to the advantage not just of France, but of Europe. The Obama White House has made no effort to mask its frustration with Europe's divisions. At least on the points where Europe can agree, such as fair terms for trade, Mr Sarkozy can be a forceful advocate.

France is becoming the new regional focus. President Medvedev recently ended a high-profile visit to Paris that pressed the reset button on relations with Russia more successfully than the US has so far achieved. Even in Britain, where a recent government Green Paper envisaged closer cross-Channel defence co-operation, France is looming larger. With Germany's new coalition missing in action internationally and Britain weakened by the financial crisis and already in election mode, Mr Sarkozy has an opportunity to show his capacity for regional leadership; he should use it.

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