Sarkozy visit to highlight warmer ties with Bush

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WASHINGTON, Nov 6 (Reuters) French President Nicolas Sarkozy's talks with US President George W Bush this week are expected to highlight warmer ties between their countries -- so much so that the visit has inspired US newspaper cartoons depicting Sarkozy as Bush's new ''poodle.'' The caricature overlooks the fact that the French president has given every indication he will not flinch from disagreeing with Washington, foreign policy analysts say.

But Sarkozy, who has made no secret of his affinity for American culture, has made clear he wants to renew a transatlantic friendship that was badly strained by the Iraq war and a chilly personal relationship between Bush and Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

''Sarkozy is trying to play it very carefully here,'' said Stephen Flanagan, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

''He's made it clear he wants to have a more constructive relationship with Washington. But that doesn't mean capitulating on issues that France feels strongly about.'' Bush, also eager for a fresh start in the relationship, will treat Sarkozy to a formal dinner at the White House on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, he will lead Sarkozy on a tour of Mount Vernon, the home of the first US president, George Washington, located just south of the US capital.

The location will evoke the long alliance between the two countries, serving as a reminder of France's support for the United States in the revolution that led to independence from Britain in the late 18th century.

In case either leader needed a refresher on the historical details, the entertainment at the White House dinner was to include actors dressed as Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, a French military officer and aristocrat who fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War.

Reporters at today's White House briefing were more interested in whether Sarkozy, whose divorce last month rocked the French establishment, would bring a date to dinner.

''I don't know,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

''I've been a little bit busy looking at other things.

IRAN ON THE AGENDA With history setting the backdrop for the visit, the talks will cover concerns about Iran's nuclear program, the situation in Iraq, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, instability in Lebanon, a planned US-sponsored Middle East conference and efforts to combat climate change, the White House said.

Bush has been ratcheting up his rhetoric toward Tehran and last month raised the prospect of World War Three if Iran were to be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.

He is seeking support for a third round of UN sanctions against Tehran but has faced resistance from Russia and China.

Western countries accuse Iran of using its nuclear enrichment program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons.

Tehran insists its nuclear programme is solely for the peaceful purposes of generating electricity.

Sarkozy has shown a greater willingness than Chirac to put pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme, a change welcomed by Washington.

Bush's meeting with Sarkozy comes just before the US president hosts German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his Texas ranch for two days of talks, with Iran again seen as the dominant topic.

Bush has been focusing on building a rapport with both Merkel and Sarkozy, after British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his closest European ally, stepped down.

While vacationing in New Hampshire in August, Sarkozy visited the Bush family's compound in Kennebunkport, Maine to chat with Bush over hamburgers and hot dogs.

REUTERS NC KP2336

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