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Friday, April 3, 2009


Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama today hailed a new Franco-US alliance of "identical views" after holding their first face-to-face meeting since last year's US elections. The US president, who was greeted by cheering crowds as he arrived in Strasbourg for the Nato summit, praised Sarkozy for bringing France back into Nato's military command structure and hailed his energy on the international scene. "Thanks to the great leadership of President Sarkozy, courageous on so many fronts, it's hard to keep up," Obama said. "The energy that he has brought to foreign affairs is something that I think we've all benefited from."

Sarkozy, whose pro-Washington stance has seen him nicknamed "Sarko the American", stressed that France and the US were "the same family". He said he supported US strategy in Afghanistan, but added that France would send no more troops. The presidents had an hour-long meeting at which they discussed Nato, Iran, Russia, the Middle East and the likelihood that France will take in one detainee from Guantánamo Bay.

Speaking at a joint press conference after the talks, Obama called for closer ties with Russia despite "core disagreements" and warned North Korea not to proceed with a planned missile launch. The effusive back-slapping and mutual praise between Obama and his host was the latest example of France's new transatlantic focus and a Paris-Washington relationship that has bounced back from the 2003 spat over the Iraq war.

Sarkozy has been obsessed for months with his personal relationship with Obama. In recent months, the Elysée has made no secret of its frustration that he had not managed to secure a White House invitation. When he travelled to Washington for the G20 talks in November, the French president kept a plane on standby so he could jet to Chicago for a photo opportunity, but Obama's camp said no.

Paris subsequently tried to engineer several meetings, but to no avail, and Sarkozy was reportedly frustrated that Gordon Brown beat him to Washington to meet Obama. At the G20 summit in London, the French media pored over the seating arrangements for dinners and photocalls, showing a disgruntled Sarkozy watching from the fringes as Obama, the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, delivered thumbs-up gestures from the centre of the photo line-up.

Sarkozy has staked a lot on his relationship with Obama, who is hugely popular in France. The French centre-right president calls Obama a "pal", despite only a couple of meetings before and during the election campaign. His failure to secure a meeting before today became a national joke and a source of satire. His handwritten note congratulating Obama on his election spelt the US president's name wrong – Barak.

Recently, the former French president and Sarkozy mentor turned rival Jacques Chirac publicized a gushing letter he had received from Obama, who looked forward to working together "in the spirit of peace and friendship to build a safer world". It was a mere protocol reply to Chirac's congratulation message, but its release heightened the sense of a snub to the Elysée.

Obama counts several Francophiles among his staff, and Philip Gordon, his assistant secretary of state for European affairs, has translated one of Sarkozy's books into English. But Sarkozy is well-known in Washington for his previous close friendship with George Bush, and French commentators have warned that the White House is guarded over Sarkozy's grandstanding on the public stage.

Today's Sarkozy-Obama photocall and press conference pre-empts the real photo opportunity when Obama visits the Normandy beaches in June to celebrate the 65th anniversary of D-Day.

President Barack Obama today issued another veiled warning to the North Koreans to call off their planned test launch of a long-range ballistic missile, which he said would be a provocative move.

Speaking at a press conference with President Nicolas Sarkozy after a meeting with the French leader at Rohan Palace in central Strasbourg, the US President said North Korea's response to his previous warning had been to resort to the sort of language "that has led to North Korea's isolation in the international community for a long time".

President Obama said the international community would take "appropriate steps" against North Korea if it went ahead with the launch, although he gave no indication of what he had in mind. Japan, South Korea, Russia and China have all pressed North Korea not to go forward with the action. The sombre note to what was otherwise a verbal back-slapping occasion in which the two leaders highlighted the close relationship between the United States and France ahead of the two-day Nato summit

The meeting is taking place in three locations - Baden-Baden in Germany tonight for a dinner, Kehl tomorrow morning when Chancellor Angela Merkel, the German leader, will walk across the bridge over the Rhine outside the town to meet President Sarkozy, and then on to Strasbourg for a full plenary session of the summit leaders.

Earlier saw one of the most eagerly awaited photocalls in years. Michelle Obama, wife of the US President who has been received as a star in her own right wherever she has gone, and Carla Bruni, the equally elegant wife of the French President, lining up with their husbands on the steps of the palace to be photographed.

Both First Ladies seemed at their ease. The only one who appeared to be keen to end the photocall and to go into the palace was Mr Sarkozy who ushered the US President and his wife away after a short period of flashing camera lights.

After their lunch meeting, Mr Sarkozy emphasised how pleased he was to be dealing with an American President who wanted a proper partnership with Europe and a US leader who wanted to listen.

Mr Obama addressed fears in Europe that the US wanted Nato to be the preeminent military force at the expense of EU efforts, saying that the US did not want to be the patron of Europe but its partner.

"We want strong allies," he said. "We would like to see Europe have much more robust defence capabilities. The more capable defensively, the more we can act in concert on the shared challenges that we face."

The US President praised France as America's "first ally" and "oldest ally" and praised the active leadership of President Sarkozy "on so many fronts" - a diplomatic reference to the French president's hyperactive diplomatic behaviour. "It's difficult to keep up," Mr Obama said.

The pair clearly had frank exchanges behind the scenes on Afghanistan, with Mr Sarkozy saying that there would be no more French troops in response to President Obama's requests for reinforcements. The French leader said France had announced more troops last year - a reference to last year's pledge to deploy several hundred more French soldiers.

Mr Obama, however, again made the case for extra European forces in Afghanistan to fight terrorism, warning that the continent was even more vulnerable to attack from al-Qaeda than the United States.

"It is probably more likely that al-Qaeda would be able to launch a serious terrorist attack on Europe than on the United States because of proximity," he said.

Mr Sarkozy also went further than he has before in talking about plans to engage with Russia over a new security pact that covers western Europe. "I hope very shortly that there will be a common economic space," the French President said, adding that France had agreed to accept a prisoner from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba, which President Obama has announced will close.

"Yes we have spoken, yes we have agreed" to accept one detainee, President Sarkozy said at the press conference.

A US official in Washington had said earlier that France was considering taking in an Algerian detainee "because there are historic links between France and Algeria".

In a lyrical flourish to end his press conference, President Sarkozy added: "I believe democracy makes it encumbent upon heads of state to speak the truth and to live up to what they say. I am a longstanding friend of the US and this [Guantanamo] was not in keeping with US values, at least with my personal view of US values.

I was proud and happy that the US should have taken the decision we were hoping for, which was to close it down. We cannot condemn the US and then wash our hands. France's word is France's bond."

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