Britain fascinated by France's Sarkozy and his new wife
Sarkozy, on his first state visit since marrying Carla Bruni last month, is seen as a breath of fresh air after Gaullist Jacques Chirac.
Britain welcomes Nicolas Sarkozy to London Wednesday, curious about the new French president's "anglo-saxon" reformist credentials -- and fascinated by his glamorous new wife.
Sarkozy, on his first state visit since marrying Carla Bruni last month, is
seen as a breath of fresh air after Gaullist Jacques Chirac -- although there
are signs that his honeymoon with the British press will be short-lived.
"Un Bon Ami" (A Good Friend) commented the Times newspaper -- in French -- as the headline of a recent editorial reflecting mood of British media
coverage ahead of the two-day visit.
Sarkozy's election last year was greeted as a chance to turn a page in
Franco-British relations, long personified by the stormy relations between
Chirac and former prime minister Tony Blair.
"Instinctively, the British people and the British press want to like
Sarkozy. They like his frank speaking, his energy," said John Lichfield, Paris
correspondent of the British Independent daily.
Chirac's image in Britain was never glowing, and became even worse when he led an anti-war bloc against the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq --- not to
mention denigrating British cuisine in overheard off-the-cuff remarks.
In contrast Sarkozy quickly underlined his backing for the deregulated
economic model espoused by Britain and the United States, and pledging to
reform a French system widely seen as corrupt and outdated in Britain.
"There was a view that he was going to be a more anglo-saxon compatible
president. He was going to be much more liberal in his economic view, he was
going to be possibly less flagrantly attached to European ideas than some
previous French presidents," Lichfield told AFP.
But he warned that Sarkozy's behaviour has raised some eyebrows, notably
his "apparently boyish delight in his own position as president; his setting
up of his new wife (and) his displaying of lofty friends."
"You have a sense that there are two men at work: one who is often
impressive and one who lets himself down," he said.
Another point which could endear him to British audiences centres on his
efforts to bolster the French military contribution in Afghanistan, and his
apparent interest in restoring France's place in the NATO alliance.
On this front he is in stark contrast to Chirac, who refused point blank to
send troops to post-war Iraq, and stood firm by General Charles de Gaulle's
1966 decision to withdraw from NATO's integrated military command.
"Sarkozy is certainly much more sympathetically viewed at the moment," said
Roger Duclaud-Williams, an expert on Anglo-French relations at the University
of Warwick in central England.
This was "both for the reasons of his foreign policy stands and because he
seems to want to adopt a position in French domestic matters which is more
sympathetic to the kind of line that's been taken by" Britain, he said.
But rather than policy questions, it is Sarkozy's personality and private
life which have generated headlines in Britain.
His divorce from Cecilia last October, and his marriage four months later
to former model Bruni, have received breathless coverage both in the British
tabloids and in more "serious" broadsheets.
His reputation as a lover of "bling" and the star lifestyle has also
crossed the English Channel.
"That has gradually undermined the willingness to take Sarkozy seriously in
some parts of the British press. That's why this visit will be very
interesting, to see how he goes down."