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Europe

French Leader Sarkozy Expected to Polish Image in Britain

French President Sarkozy begins a visit to Britain on Wednesday, March 26. Afghanistan and the Olympics in Beijing will be on the agenda, but some say the trip is also an attempt to spiff up the president's image.

Sarkozy (left) and British Prime Minister Brown

Sarkozy (left) and British Prime Minister Brown shared laughs at an EU summit in December

After months of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's private life being in the limelight, more politics and some pomp will be on the agenda once the leader arrives in Britain.

Ahead of the visit, Sarzoky called for closer French-British ties. The two countries should "move from being cordial to being friendly," Sarkozy said in an interview with British broadcaster BBC.

Sarkozy said the friendship "shouldn't simply be a matter of principle," but one that is "fleshed out by concrete projects on the economy, immigration, security, defense."

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at the House of Lords

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at the House of Lords

The French president will be accompanied by his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy for the two-day visit, during which the couple will meet with Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It will be the highest profile international engagement since Sarzoky's and Bruni's wedding in February.

Pomp and politics

The couple is to spend the night at Windsor Castle, the queen's treasured home west of London, in a rare honor for a foreign leader.

The visit will also include a procession through Windsor's streets in a horse-drawn carriage and a state banquet.

Sarkozy is also to address both houses of the British parliament on Wednesday -- an honor bestowed to just 31 foreign leaders since 1939.

British Prime Minister Brown

Serious issues to discuss with Brown include Afghanistan

On Thursday, Sarkozy is to meet with Prime Minister Brown for a summit during which the two are expected to announce a deal for France to help Britain build a new generation of nuclear power plants.

The two are also expected to discuss the option of France sending an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan to aid in the international fight against the Taliban. Britain has nearly 8,000 troops in the country.

Talks may also focus on the need for greater transparency of financial markets, including full disclosure of write-offs by banks, in light of ongoing market turbulence and the near-collapse of US investment bank Bear Stearns.

Sarkozy could likely repeat a threat he made on Tuesday that France cannot rule out a boycott of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics due to China's crackdown in Tibet.

Mending Franco-British ties

In an editorial, the British newspaper The Independent called Sarkozy's visit "not just a potentially significant staging post in Britain's erratic European journey."

"A stronger Anglo-French relationship could have wider consequences.... It is better for Britain, France and for the rest of the world if the two countries are working closely together rather than damaging themselves by feuding from a distance," the paper wrote.

Under the leadership of predecessors Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair, the two countries clashed over France's opposition to the US-led, British-backed invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and relations have been strained ever since.

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy

Pollsters say the love affair between Carla Bruni and Sarkozy has distracted the president

French media have portrayed the trip as an opportunity for Sarkozy to boost his ratings with a more statesmanlike image to stop his personal life from being the focus of attention.

A recent survey by France's Journal du Dimanche newspaper put the French people's satisfaction rating with Sarkozy at 37 percent, and his right-wing UMP party suffered heavy losses in local elections earlier this month.

Analysts blame the president's tangled personal life for the dip in his popularity. Sarkozy's divorce from his second wife, Cecilia Ciganier-Albeniz, and his recent marriage to model-turned-singer Carla Bruni made headlines for months.

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