By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007
French President Nicolas Sarkozy continued his Washington charm offensive yesterday, telling Congress he stands with the United States in fighting terrorists and backing President Bush's strategy to confront Iran even as he found time to consult with the leading Democratic presidential contender.
"The French people love the American people; that is the truth and nothing but the truth," Sarkozy said at the opening of a joint news conference with Bush at Mount Vernon, chosen to highlight close ties between the nations dating back to the American Revolution.
Sarkozy and Bush have spent the better part of two days trying to repair a bilateral relationship that had been badly frayed by feuding over the Iraq war since 2003. But Sarkozy is also apparently looking beyond the Bush administration, as he took 15 minutes out of a frenetic day to place a call to front-running Democratic presidential contender Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Philippe Reines, Clinton's Senate press secretary, confirmed the call, saying the two had "an informal and friendly chat."
The call came at the instigation of Sarkozy, who was apparently seeking a first-person update on the American presidential campaign, a French official said. Before becoming president, Sarkozy met on previous visits with presidential contenders Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Sarkozy told Clinton "the only thing harder than running for president of France is running for president of the United States," said another source, friendly to Clinton, who did not want to be quoted describing a private conversation.
Over two days, Sarkozy met with U.S. business leaders to tout his efforts to reform France's economy, and breakfasted with Jewish leaders to assure them of his commitment to fighting anti-Semitism. He addressed a joint session of Congress yesterday, receiving a standing ovation from lawmakers who seemed elated to turn the page with France after various disputes.
Despite nervousness in Paris and other European capitals about troop deployments to Afghanistan, Sarkozy pledged that France "will remain engaged in Afghanistan for as long as it takes, because what is at stake in that country is the very future of our values and that of the Atlantic alliance."
Sarkozy spent several hours in conversations with Bush and his advisers, discussing the combined efforts of the United States and Europe to persuade Iran to give up activities that the Bush administration has argued are aimed at developing a nuclear weapon, among other issues.
At their joint news conference, Sarkozy backed Bush's efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran, although the French president also spoke, somewhat elliptically, of the need to engage Iran in a "dialogue," something the Bush administration has resisted.
"We have to keep the way of dialogue open, because we must do everything to avoid the worst-case scenario," Sarkozy said, touching on the possibility of U.S. military action against Iran. "And this, indeed, was the subject of a very lengthy conversation that showed exactly how convergent our views were."
Bush seemed pleased with his new transatlantic partner but did not back off from his fierce defense of the wisdom of the Iraq invasion.
"We had a difference of opinion with your great country over whether or not I should have used military force to enforce U.N. demands," Bush said, suggesting that those differences have ebbed. "I don't sense any difference of opinion now that a struggling democracy wants help from those of us who live in the comfort of free societies."