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Sarkozy heads for Washington looking to boost ties


France's President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses a news conference at the end of an European Union leaders summit in Brussels March 26, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses a news conference at the end of an European Union leaders summit in Brussels March 26, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By Yann Le Guernigou

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy visits the United States next week looking to reinforce cooperation over Iran and Afghanistan and lay the groundwork for G20 meetings that Paris will lead next year.

The two-day trip to New York and Washington follows a rocky period in transatlantic relations when many in Europe felt U.S. President Barack Obama was overly focused on domestic affairs.

Freshly boosted by passage of the healthcare reform bill, Obama is expected to step up his diplomatic action and on Friday he sealed a landmark nuclear arms reduction deal with Russia.

Sarkozy, whose popularity in France has hit record lows as the economy struggles, will arrive with a package of issues to discuss, ranging from security to climate change and he will also try to restart a drive for global financial reform.

"Nicolas Sarkozy will push for the financial regulation agenda agreed at past G20 meetings to be respected because although a lot has been achieved, a lot still remains to be done," an official at the Elysee palace said.

Many European leaders and policy makers fear that the pressure to regulate financial markets which built up in the wake of the Lehman Brothers crash in 2008 has dissipated as the immediate crisis has eased.

Beyond the policy issues, Sarkozy's visit also provides an opportunity to dispel a persistent impression that relations between the two countries have not quite lived up to the hopes of the early days of Obama's administration.

The U.S. president has visited France twice since his election, but was widely perceived to have snubbed Sarkozy last year when he turned down the offer of a state dinner, preferring instead to dine alone with his wife, Michelle in a restaurant.

Perhaps hoping to end talk of friction, Sarkozy and his wife Carla will dine privately with the Obamas at the White House.

French officials say it is the first time such a dinner has been arranged for a head of state and Sarkozy will no doubt hope that the high profile visit will lift his standing back home a week after his center-right party slumped in local elections.

FINANCIAL REFORM

Sarkozy's visit coincides with a push by Obama on financial reform but there remains big differences between the United States and Europe over regulation of banks, derivatives markets and hedge funds.

Foreign exchange imbalances between the dollar, the yuan and the euro, which Sarkozy has long seen as a major source of instability in the global economy will also be a key subject with France due to take over the G8 and G20 chairs next year.

While Sarkozy's comments in the past have focused on the strength of the euro against the dollar, America's growing impatience with China over the yuan could bring the two sides closer together on the forex issue.

Both countries have also stepped up pressure on Iran over its nuclear ambitions, which they say are aimed at developing a bomb, despite denials by Tehran, and both are working toward introducing a new raft of new United Nations sanctions.

But there have been plenty of disagreements as well, ranging from the disputed air refuelling tanker deal that European aerospace group EADS pulled out of, to French resistance to boosting its troop presence in Afghanistan.

However, France has pledged more staff to train Afghan forces and might face pressure to offer additional help.

The U.S. president's National Security Adviser James Jones told French newspapers Sarkozy was regarded as "an important counselor" and "someone our president likes a lot" but he suggested as well that their relationship could be forthright.

"Mr Obama respects communication which is clear and without ambiguity," he said. "There's no time wasted trying to be too polite and not trying to offend anyone."

(Writing by James Mackenzie)

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