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Sarkozy warms to U.S., except on Iraq

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2007

PARIS — In his short time in office, President Nicolas Sarkozy has brought French foreign policy closer to that of the United States than his two predecessors did in a quarter century.

In a series of major addresses to the French diplomatic corps this week, the man called "Sarko the American" by some promised in no uncertain terms to reinforce the friendship with the United States "without indulgence or taboos" and pursue wide-ranging objectives across the globe.

Since taking office in May, Mr. Sarkozy has promised to help Washington to stabilize Iraq and issued a stern warning to Iran about a possible conflict over its nuclear buildup.

He has also promised closer cooperation with the United States after years of trans-Atlantic sniping and French criticism of American policy.

Recent polls confirm Mr. Sarkozy's popularity, even among left-wing sympathizers, half of whom rated his performance as "positive" thus far, according to a poll published Monday by the newspaper Le Figaro.

But with much of France on the country's traditional August break, soundings are premature on whether the nation itself has warmed to United States or is simply enamored of the energetic new leader.

"We do need an active president," said Marc-Herve Binet, a medical doctor in Paris. "His policy of better relations with the United States is bound to receive popular backing, obviously apart from the small band of professional America haters."

Many Frenchmen say they are waiting for something to happen.

"There was a talk between Sarkozy and [President] Bush and a few statements, but these are not enough to galvanize public opinion. Let's wait for some action," said Marc-Francis Jacquier, a lawyer.

France's somnolent political scene is expected to liven up this fall, but analysts expect the nation to be preoccupied with internal problems, such as Mr. Sarkozy's effort to undo the 35-hour workweek that businesses say has made France uncompetitive.

"It's too early to judge the impact of Sarkozy's pro-American statements," said Jean-Louis Courcier, a retired executive. "Besides, such an aspect does not affect everyday life."

Mr. Sarkozy has restated France's anger over Iraq, acknowledging that his nation "was and still is hostile to the war."

"I hope he keeps his independence," said Annick Renaud, a part-time social worker. "Some people are afraid that he might send out troops to Iraq. That would not make him popular."

The French press is cautiously optimistic that Mr. Sarkozy will boost France's declining stature in world affairs.

"Sarkozy gives a new tone to French diplomacy," headlined the liberal Le Monde daily.

"New road map of French diplomacy," wrote the center-right Le Figaro.

A little over 100 days into his term, Mr. Sarkozy still gets high approval numbers, with 71 percent of the French rating his performance to date as "positive," according the Le Figaro poll.

European Union chanceries have yet to digest the vigorous turn in French foreign policy, particularly because that aspect of Mr. Sarkozy's program received little attention during his electoral campaign earlier this year.

But the French press promptly reflected the changes likely to stem from the three-day meeting of about 180 French ambassadors, a corps that Mr. Sarkozy has often described to his aides in sarcastic terms.

After a dozen sluggish years under former President Jacques Chirac, the French are still adjusting to the hyperactive Mr. Sarkozy.

He undercut leftist critics by inducing Bernard Kouchner to join his Cabinet as foreign minister and backing the nomination of longtime Socialist Party leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn to lead the International Monetary Fund.

The new and ambitious foreign-policy agenda also calls for reinforcing Europe's defenses in conjunction with NATO, strong opposition to Russia's "brutal use of its resources," increasing the membership of the Group of Eight industrial powers to 13, making Africa "an essential priority" and defining a "clear horizon" for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq.

Mr. Sarkozy's strongest foreign-policy statement to date called the Iranian nuclear crisis "the most serious that weighs on the international order today" and warned that Iran could be attacked if it did not curb its nuclear program. He did not say what France's role would be in such a situation.

Some officials in the French Foreign Ministry expressed surprise about the tone and ambition of Mr. Sarkozy's statements. They said the program spelled out this week sets the stage for Mr. Sarkozy's planned visit to the United Nations General Assembly next month and a new round of talks with Mr. Bush.

Mr. Sarkozy's new "road map" for French diplomacy also caused concern for some of France's EU partners, particularly Germany which harbors its own global ambitions and had not expected the French president to move so fast.