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French president visits U.S. amid improved relations

  • Story Highlights
  • French President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to address Congress on Wednesday
  • The French leader has backed the U.S. on the Iranian nuclear issue
  • Former French President Jacques Chirac addressed Congress in 1996
  • Chirac help to sour relations with U.S. with his criticism of Iraq war
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived Tuesday in Washington ahead of a planned address to Congress, the first by a French leader in 11 years.

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Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to show he's a good ally of the United States since his election earlier this year.

His speech Wednesday to a joint meeting of Congress will come amid improved relations between the United States and France, something Sarkozy has encouraged since his election in May.

In his first few months in office, the French leader has been at pains to show he is an ally of the United States, backing President Bush's hard-line stance on Iran's nuclear program and attempting to heal the wounds over his country's opposition to the Iraq war.

The French leader, whom Bush will host at a White House dinner Tuesday night, has said that he understands Americans were "struck in the heart" by the September 11, 2001, attacks and that they considered French criticism of the Iraq invasion "a betrayal."

Sarkozy's speech to Congress will be the first address by a French leader since President Jacques Chirac's appearance in 1996.

On that occasion, several lawmakers boycotted Chirac as a protest against France's nuclear testing in the South Pacific. In later years, Chirac's outspoken criticism of the Iraq war helped to sour relations between the two countries.

However, the man whom the French media have dubbed "Sarko the American" is unlikely to receive such a hostile reception. A self-professed Elvis Presley fan, Sarkozy has made no attempt to hide his admiration for the United States. Video Watch how France's conservative star has warmed relations »

During the summer, he vacationed in New Hampshire, where he was photographed jogging in a New York Police Department T-shirt.

"There was this big talk about him going jogging, which was seen as an American pastime," said Sally McNamara of conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. "You know, he's willing to do these things and he's willing to stand up and say, 'Hold on a minute, America's spent blood and treasure twice to rescue Europe. Let's not pretend they're our enemy here. America is our friend.' "

Despite the recent fallout over Iraq, French leaders have a long tradition of appearing in front of Congress.

Sarkozy's speech will be the eighth address by a French dignitary or head of state -- the most congressional appearances by leaders of any country.

The Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution, was the first foreign dignitary to address the House of Representatives in 1824.

Sarkozy will evoke these historical ties during his trip, visiting Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, who relied on the support of the French military to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War.

But Sarkozy's attempts to seek a closer alliance with the Bush administration have drawn criticism in France.

French opposition Socialists have said Sarkozy is taking on the role of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom critics accused of being too uncritical of Washington in the buildup to the Iraq war.

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In a interview with the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, Pierre Moscovici, the French Socialists' spokesman on international affairs, called Sarkozy a "poodle," a reference to the British media's nickname for Blair due to his close ties with Bush.

Moscovici told the paper that Sarkozy is playing a dangerous game and risks putting France in a position where it would be unable to have any critical dialogue with the United States. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.

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