Sarkozy's British Visit Closely Watched

French president Nicolas Sarkozy's two-day state visit is intriguing to media on both sides of the English Channel. The British are interested Sarkozy's pro-Anglo-Saxon stance. The French see the pomp-filled visit as a chance for Sarkozy to burnish his tarnished presidential image.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy began a two-day official visit to Britain this morning. His trip is being followed closely on both sides of the English Channel. In Britain, people are interested in France's new, as the French would say, pro-Anglo-Saxon president and his glamorous new wife. In France, the state visit is viewed as a chance for Sarkozy to restore a presidential image tarnished by his private life, which has kept the tabloids brimming with stories on days when Britney Spears has forgotten to misbehave.

Eleanor Beardsley has this report from Paris.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: French television can't seem to get enough of Sarkozy's trip to Britain, especially his visit with the queen. Most TV channels carried their first meeting and ride in a horse-drawn carriage live.

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BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy will be the first French leader to spend the night at Windsor Castle where Queen Elizabeth II is giving a banquet in his honor tonight. French writer Anne-Elisabeth Moutet says rubbing shoulders with the queen of England is the best way to make voters forget the tabloid coverage of Sarkozy's divorce, whirlwind courtship, and remarriage.

Ms. ANNE-ELIZABETH MOUTET (Journalist): The French want their president to have a sort of reassuring grand manner. It doesn't pay in France to be everyone. You do not elect everyone president. You also want who looks like a combination of General de Gaulle and Louis XIV.

BEARDSLEY: But a visit with the queen is also a protocol minefield. Analysts say Sarkozy's actions and gestures will be scrutinized and that he has no room for even the slightest gaffe. No one here has forgotten the protocol scandal caused when former French President Jacques Chirac lightly touched the queen's shoulder in jest.

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BEARDSLEY: At a news kiosk from the street this morning, French papers were full of advise for the president. "36 hours with the Queen" read the cover of daily Le Parisien which went on to give Sarkozy a protocol tip - never speak to the queen without being spoken to first and always call her ma'am.

Protocol aside, Sarkozy's visit to the U.K. is also one of substance. He will meet British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tomorrow where the two leaders are set to sign cooperation agreements on European defense, nuclear power and immigration. Moutet says Sarkozy also hopes to send a message to German Chancellor Angela Merkel with whom his relationship has been prickly.

Ms. MOUTET: What Sarkozy's going to do with this trip is basically to say the French-German alliance is not the only thing in Europe. And Europe now needs what they call the French-British motor, which in effect is telling Angela Merkel of Germany, sorry, you're no longer the only game in town.

BEARDSLEY: John Lichfield, Paris correspondent for British newspaper, The Independent, says a change in leadership in both countries has everyone talking about a new beginning for Anglo-French relations. But Lichfield predicts French and British leaders will soon be back to their usual bickering.

Mr. JOHN LICHFIELD (Paris Correspondent, The Independent): I think you'll find that within the year or so the same papers that are now making a lot of Sarkozy and saying what a wonderful man he is and how Anglo-Saxon he is in his attitudes will be saying this man has betrayed us, you know, you can't trust the French, all the usual stuff.

BEARDSLEY: Lichfield says British interest in Sarkozy's glamorous new wife, Italian former-supermodel-turned-pop-singer Carla Bruni has added a further element of excitement to the trip. Even the couple's critics in France admit that Bruni's cultured upbringing, impeccable etiquette, and fluent English might help Sarkozy pull it off with the queen.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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