'Presidential' Sarkozy set for pomp of state visit to London | world | Hindustan Times
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'Presidential' Sarkozy set for pomp of state visit to London

President Nicolas Sarkozy travels to London this week for a state visit high in pageantry as the French leader tries to regain popularity at home with a more statesmanlike image.

world Updated: Mar 23, 2008 08:31 IST

President Nicolas Sarkozy travels to London this week for a state visit high in pageantry as the French leader tries to regain popularity at home with a more statesmanlike image.

As guests of Queen Elizabeth II, Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy will be treated to the full pomp of a top-level visit -- a procession in a horse-drawn carriage, a state banquet in their honour and a stay at Windsor Castle, the royal weekend hideaway, west of London.

Coming three months before France takes over the presidency of the European Union, the two-day visit also gives Sarkozy an opportunity to chart new areas of cooperation with eurosceptic Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Sarkozy and Bruni will be greeted Wednesday at London Heathrow airport by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla Parker Bowles, whose experience with the celebrity press far outweighs that of the French first couple.

Dubbed by some in France as the "bling-bling" president, Sarkozy wants to project a more sobre image after drawing criticism for his glitzy romance with supermodel and singer Bruni, whom he married four months after his divorce.

"The president is trying to correct his image. He wants to have a more presidential stature and naturally this can be done through the conduct of foreign policy," said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Institute for International Strategic Studies in Paris.

But political analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges said forays onto the world stage would not necessarily help bolster Sarkozy's image and sagging approval ratings at home.

"Some people will say 'he should be taking care of our problems instead of riding around in a carriage'," said Moreau Defarges from the French Institute for International Relations.

The visit will formally turn the page on the tense relations between former prime minister Tony Blair and Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac, notably over the US war in Iraq.

During a Franco-British summit on Thursday, Sarkozy and Brown are to discuss defence cooperation after the new government in Paris raised the prospect of France's return to NATO military command after a 40-year absence.

"The visit underscores the French desire to reshape its relations with Washington's closest ally," Maulny said.

Redefining the mission of the NATO force in Afghanistan will also be on the agenda, as sources in Brussels and Paris say France is tipped to send an extra 1,000 troops to fight the Taliban.

An unusual but symbolic venue has been chosen for the summit -- the Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal football club that boasts a raft of French talent led by manager Arsene Wenger.

With his relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel somewhat strained, Sarkozy is expected to use the London visit to show that he can work cooperatively with European partners and dispel the view that he is prone to a go-it-alone approach.

"Both Brown and Sarkozy are very practical," said Clara O'Donnell, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform. "They want to show that they can have policy delivery."

Sarkozy hopes the six-month EU presidency starting on July 1 will bolster France's role within Europe and is pushing proposals for a new Mediterranean Union, tougher EU-wide immigration control and putting relations with Russia on a firmer footing.

But analysts say there are limits to the rapprochement between Brown and Sarkozy on the European project.

"They don't share a very close vision of Europe," said Moreau Defarges.

"Brown wants Turkey in Europe, Sarkozy doesn't; France wants strong European institutions, Britain is wary; Sarkozy is wary of free-market competition, Brown believes in market liberalism."

Maulny also warns relations between London and Paris are not rosy.

"Both countries have unclear policies when it comes to Europe and this does not help the relationship," he said. "I think for now Brown and Sarkozy will stick to a pragmatic approach, working together in areas where they can."