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Nicolas Sarkozy speaks to US Congress

French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to Washington to improve relations between two countries. He assured Congress that "our friendship and our alliance is strong."

Sarkozy also told lawmakers that such improved relations should lead to much closer cooperation on a host of international problems including Iran's nuclear program, Middle East peace and the stability of Lebanon.

Sarkozy came to Washington seeking to restore the kind of relationship that existed between Paris and Washington before sharp differences arose over the U.S.-led war in Iraq. And he repeatedly stressed his message of bilateral cooperation.

Speaking through a translator to lawmakers gathered in the chamber of the House of Representatives for a Joint Meeting of Congress, Sarkozy highlighted France's long friendship with the United States. On this U.S. visit, his words _ as well as his demeanor _ contrasted sharply with the style of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who publicly clashed with President George W. Bush over Iraq.

The feeling was mutual.

Sarkozy entered the hallowed chamber amid high pagentry and was greeted by a standing ovation as he headed to the speaker's podium, stopping briefly to shake hands with lawmakers on the way.

Sarkozy expressed gratitude in the prepared speech for the U.S. role in liberating France from Nazi occupation in World War II.

"I want to tell you that whenever an American soldier falls somewhere in the world, I think of what the American army did for France," he said. "I think of them, and I am sad, as one is sad to lose a member of one's family."

Sarkozy's address was interrupted by applause several times. It highlighted the improved relations between the two countries. In 1996, many U.S. lawmakers boycotted a similar appearance by Chirac to protest France's nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Sarkozy, an energetic 52-year-old conservative, has wasted no time in his bid to modernize France, in part by trying to inject an American-style work ethic. As a sign of his pro-American tendencies, he took a summer vacation in the United States, causing a stir back home.

Bush and Sarkozy dined at the White House Tuesday night and were traveling later Wednesday to Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, the first U.S. president.

Earlier, in a speech to the American Jewish Committee, Sarkozy supported Iran as having a right to civilian nuclear power. If denied, he said, extremist influence in Iran will grow.

Sarkozy, receiving an award from the Jewish group as a tireless promoter of democratic values, human rights and peace, said "there should be a dialogue developed with Iran" that acknowledges its development of civilian nuclear energy.

"I believe tht Arab countries, including Iran have a right to civilian nuclear power," Sarkozy said, specifically including Syria among them.

The Bush administration, which has taken some tentative steps to develop contacts with Iran, is supicious of Iran's nuclear program as aimed at building nuclear weapons, despite Iran's assertions it is working only on civilian power.

Sarkozy denounced antisemitism and racism as "beasts" and said France would fight for Israel's security.

At the same time, he said "we have waited too long" for an agreement that establishes a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"It is in the interest of the entire world that there be an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

In his toast Tuesday night, Bush did not mention France's opposition to the war in Iraq. Instead, he spoke of working with France to help others around the world resist tyranny and oppression. "French and American troops are helping defend a young democracy in Afghanistan," Bush said.

For his part, Sarkozy didn't sidestep the fact that Bush and the war in Iraq remain unpopular in his country. "I also came to say that one can be a friend of America, and yet win elections in France," he joked during his toast at a White House dinner where the two leaders dined on lobster bisque and lamb.

That is not something Bush would have heard from Chirac.

Sarkozy known in France as "Sarko the American" described the U.S.-French relationship as "simple," yet "always beautiful."

Sarkozy, who was seated next to first lady Laura Bush, came to the White House alone. He and his wife, Cecilia, announced their divorce on Oct. 18, a first for a French head of state.

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