The long years of animosity between the US and France formally ended just after 11am yesterday when the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, entered the House of Representatives to applause and yelps of approval. Congressmen gave him a standing ovation and queued to shake his hand. The chamber was packed for a rare joint meeting of the Senate and the House of Representatives, in contrast with 1996 when members boycotted an address by the then president, Jacques Chirac, over nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Mr Sarkozy, on his first official visit to Washington, told congressmen: “The state of our friendship and alliance is strong.” Acknowledging the rift between the two countries in 2003 over France’s opposition to the Iraq war, he said: “Friends may have differences. They may have disagreements. They may have disputes. But in times of difficulty, in times of hardship, friends stand together, side by side.”
He spoke of the historical links between the two countries dating back to the revolutionary war, and his love of US literature, music and film. “My generation shared all the American dreams. Our imaginations were fuelled by the winning of the West and Hollywood. By Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, Hemingway, by John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and by Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, fulfilling mankind’s oldest dream,” he said.
With Tony Blair retired and Gordon Brown having cooled relations with President George Bush, Mr Sarkozy is the administration’s favourite European. “I also came to say that one can be a friend of America, and yet win elections in France,” he joked at a White House dinner on Tuesday.
After his address to Congress, he went to Mount Vernon in Virginia, George Washington’s home, for talks with Mr Bush on the Iran nuclear crisis. Afterwards, Mr Bush said the two were in agreement; Mr Sarkozy added: “It is unacceptable for Iran at any point to have a nuclear weapon.”
Mr Sarkozy has managed two days in Washington with only one minor gaffe, when he suggested Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, had recent immigrant roots. In the impromptu remarks he said: “For more than 20 years your minister for foreign affairs has been an American from elsewhere,” the French leader said, in a reference also to former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. But Ms Rice’s parents were Americans, as were their parents and at least one other generation before them.
Mr Sarkozy, who marked six months in power this week, has been accused of playing up his image as a hero of international diplomacy in order to bury problems at home. Faced with sliding poll ratings and the prospect of further strike action, the president has not endeared himself to disgruntled public sector workers by securing a salary increase of at least 172%; his office said he was bringing his pay into line with that of the prime minister.
Transport and utility workers are deciding whether to join open-ended strike action next week over plans to end the favourable pensions deals enjoyed by certain workers. The president is also facing down rebellions from magistrates, teachers, prison officers and civil servants, who will strike this month. Students, who stormed the Sorbonne this week, are blockading several faculties in France.