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Nicholas Sarkozy visits to Washington as French president

As Nicholas Sarkozy begins his first official visit to Washington as French president Tuesday, he will seek to show that he has healed relations with the United States that were strained by the Iraq war.

The visit may also reveal how eager the White House will be to reciprocate Sarkozy's entreaties for working together on problems ranging from Iran to global warming.

The man known as "Sarko the American" is set to arrive Tuesday afternoon in Washington ahead of a White House dinner. On Wednesday, he plans to tour Mount Vernon, the home of the first U.S. President, George Washington, with President George W. Bush. He will also address a joint session of U.S. Congress intended to evoke the two centuries of ties between the two nations.

The Bush administration has welcomed Sarkozy's overture for better relations after rancorous relations with his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Sarkozy's effort at reconciliation has been both symbolic and substantive - from vacationing in New Hampshire, to backing up the Bush administration's hard line on Iran.

His address to Congress will highlight the improved relations. A similar appearance by Chirac in 1996 was boycotted by many members of Congress to protest France's nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Sarkozy will reflect broadly on his vision for French-American relations, but not to make great policy announcements, according to the French Embassy in Washington. Sarkozy has been publicly mulling a return to NATO's military command structure, after four decades of a semidetached role in the Atlantic alliance. But Sarkozy is expected to say that France has not made a decision yet.

Iran and the Middle East peace efforts are likely to dominate discussions with Bush, as the two countries look to build on their warmer relations to look for ways to improve policy coordination.

As Sarkozy meets face-to-face with Bush at the White House, the French may now look to see whether the efforts with Bush have paid dividends for France.

"Sarkozy needs to go home and say not only that this guy kissed me on both cheeks, but also that he has brought something back," says Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

One topic that Sarkozy, as well as other European leaders, would like to see compromise on from the White House is climate policy. But a breakthrough is not expected.

"On global warming, there may be disagreement, but Sarkozy will raise the issue and ask for more US leadership," says Emmanuel Lenain, press counselor at the French embassy in Washington.

Iraq will simply not be on the agenda of Sarkozy's Washington trip, French officials say.

Sarkozy will bring Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a Socialist, whose tough talk on Iran was well received by the administration during a visit in September visit.

Two ministers whose unusual backgrounds have been seen as signs of the president's reform agenda will also join him in Washington. Justice Minister Rachida Dati, of Moroccan and Algerian parentage, and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who spent years in Chicago and says bluntly that the French should roll up their sleeves and pursue a more American-style work ethic.

But there will be no first lady accompanying the French president. Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, announced their divorce on Oct. 18, a first for a French head of state.

Sarkozy's trip is not without risks. In France, Bush remains an unpopular figure, and while the French are fascinated by the United States, the American way of life gets low marks.

French officials say Sarkozy's decision to actively seek to renew, and improve, French ties with the United States was seeded in his series of meetings with American officials when he served as the minister of interior, then finance, under Chirac.

Many French were shocked by a photo of Bush and the smiling Sarkozy, then a candidate, shaking hands in Washington. That personal rapport culminated in a lunch last summer with the Bush clan at Kennebunkport, Maine, as the Sarkozys vacationed in New Hampshire.

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