- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

PARIS — One of Sen. John McCain’s jokes on the presidential campaign trail is that France now has a pro-American president, “which just goes to show you that if you live long enough, you’ll see everything.”

The 71-year-old Mr. McCain yesterday met in Elysee Palace with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s perceived as so cozy with the United States that his nickname in France is “Sarko the American.” The meeting brought together two savvy politicians who each tout their own ability for “straight talk” and who see the struggle against Islamic extremism as the world’s greatest challenge.

The first question in a press scrum after the meeting came from a French female reporter, who said to Mr. McCain, “you seem to appreciate him very much, do you think you have things in common, the same personality?”

“I would hope so. I believe that he’s a man of enormous energy,” Mr. McCain said in the driveway of the Elysee Palace. “I think we are in an era of friendship and cooperation between our two countries, which is not only beneficial to our two countries but to peace in the world.”

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    That era is fairly new, starting last May when Mr. Sarkozy, 52, swept into office on a platform similar to Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign message now — change. His criticism of France’s dwindling stature in the world and support for the United States made him a bete noire of the Left, but the French people chose him — even though he was a member of the very same party as the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac.

    Mr. Chirac, however, was a vehement critic of President Bush’s March 2003 decision to invade Iraq, and was outspoken, going so far as to publicly denounce the U.S.

    But in a speech in Washington, before he was elected president, Mr. Sarkozy pledged a swift thaw in relations with the U.S., going so far as to reject what he called the “French arrogance.”

    One of the subplots of Mr. McCain’s visit to London on Thursday, where he met with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and Paris yesterday is to begin to bridge the U.S.-Europe rift created by Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But the anger still simmers.

    Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister of France, said last month that the next U.S. president may restore something of America’s battered image abroad, but that “the magic is over.”

    But Justin Vaisse, a former adviser for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a scholar with the Brookings Institution, said the next U.S. president will fare better in Europe.

    “Whoever comes next will have the advantage of not being Bush,” Mr. Vaisse said. “That’s really important, because Bush is really a lightning rod for a lot of the negative sentiments vis-a-vis the U.S.”

    For his part, Mr. Sarkozy is part of a new faction in Europe that is moving back toward close relations with the United States. While the French leader touts a Franco-American alliance that stretches back to the Revolutionary War — he recently told a meeting of his ambassadors in Paris, “I am among those who believe that the friendship between the United States and France is as important today as it has been over the course of the past two centuries” — German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also tightening relations with the U.S.

    Mrs. Merkel, elected in 2005 to replace another vocal critic of the Iraq war, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, has sought to take a leading role in two issues dear to the United States — preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and opening a large common market with the U.S.

    While Mr. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld famously split the Continent into two — “Old Europe,” code for countries that opposed the war, and “New Europe,” those emerging Central and Eastern European nations seeking alliances with the United States — Mr. McCain yesterday sought to reunite the Continent.

    He said he hopes for “an improvement between our two countries,” and singled out Iran as an issue “we can work on together.”

    “President Sarkozy has already recommended that we join together with meaningful sanctions on Iran that will deter them from their path of acquiring nuclear weapons,” Mr. McCain said. “I believe that President Sarkozy’s leadership on that issue could be very important.”

    Mr. McCain is making inroads on the Continent and eclipsing his Democratic presidential rivals, said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow with the European Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    “Given the sort of [pro-European] views that McCain has expressed lately, I think it would be quite easy for him to stake out a [good] reputation among reasonable Europeans, aside from the knee-jerk anti-America crowd,” he said. “I think McCain has given much more thought about Europe than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.”

    Sean Lengell contributed to this report from Washington.

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