Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, has returned to France after his State visit to Britain. This was the first such visit by a French President for about 12 years. During the visit, he spoke to both Houses of Parliament (in French), had dinner with the Queen, who speaks excellent French, and held a meeting with Gordon Brown (whose French is as bad as Sarkozy's English) to discuss defence, immigration and other matters.

The thrust of his public speeches (in French) was that Britain and France should work more closely together. "We are like brothers" he said, "always fighting, but we fight only because we are so similar." There is a lot of truth in that statement. He sought to upgrade the historical Entente Cordiale to an Entente Amicale. Brown, on the last day of the visit upped the stakes once more to Entente Formidable.

The call for closer cooperation was broadly supported by the UK business community and by most of the heavyweight British newspapers. The Brits would welcome him here anytime, if -- as the Mirror said -- he brings his wife with him. Support from within the UK government was more muted.

Speaking of Ms Bruni, she put both the men to shame with her linguistic skills. Meanwhile her model-looks and judiciously-chosen wardrobe had the UK press in transports of delight.

The fragrant Ms Bruni aside, the sub-text of Sarkozy's call was not obvious, except perhaps to those who have followed post Iraq war European politics.

If Britain and France are to be like brothers in a close, amicable relationship, where does that leave Germany on the one hand, and where does it leave the United States on the other?

Here's a brief and enormously over-simplified history of the last 60 years or so of European politics.

Since the reconstruction of modern Europe, after the 1939-45 war, France and Germany have been in the driving seat. Together they have forged a strong, united Europe. Together they have overcome old enmities and forged new alliances. France has provided the political driving force and the philosophical inspiration. Germany has provided the money and the wherewithal to make it happen.

France and Germany, despite historical battles with Britain, believe that Europe is not complete without the idealism and philosophical justification of the French; the money and rationality of the Germans and the pragmatism and international experience of the British.

Britain has never fully committed to this European ideal. We have tended to look West, to the United States for friendship and support, rather than East to our neighbours in Europe. The French and the Germans regret this decision and have for decades wanted Britain to commit fully to a combined European future. In recent years, however, they appear to have accepted that Britain is unlikely to share their long-term vision of a United States of Europe.

History lesson over

So this new charm offensive by Sarkozy appears puzzling. Even more puzzling when we remember that Gordon Brown is sceptical of the benefits of European alignment. And more puzzling still, when we recall that France will hold the European presidency in the second half of this year, and Sarkozy is known to have ambitious plans to move the European Union forward during his time as President.

He wants to establish a European army; he wants to align immigration policies and he wants to set up permanent diplomatic posts to represent the EU. Aside from that, he has pushed for a strong alliance among the Mediterranean nations, which caused enough irritation in Berlin for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to slap him down with a call to recognise the strengths of a united Europe.

A superficial analysis might suggest that Sarkozy is trying to woo Britain away from the United States and into the arms of the waiting Europeans.

George W. Bush has managed to alienate most French, Germans and many Brits. Is Sarkozy attempting to divide and rule? It might look like that at first glance, but I don't read the signs that way.

The United States has, in recent years, not seen eye to eye with France. France under President Chirac never failed to take the opportunity to criticise the United States, for its foreign policies, for its cultural imperialism and for its warmongering. Chirac lost no time in displaying his Schadenfreude at the discomfiture of the Americans following the invasion of Iraq. This led to a view in Washington -- not completely unjustified -- that France does whatever it takes to impede US actions, irrespective of what those actions might be.

Sarkozy, however, has shown himself willing to work with the Americans. On this most recent visit to the UK, he said France will commit troops to Afghanistan. He attended an informal summit with US President Bush last year, and shortly after, Sarkozy began working with the US throughout the Middle East. Eventually, last August, Sarkozy sent his foreign minister to Iraq with the aim of helping to find solutions to the undoubted problems in that country. That was the first visit by a senior French politician to Iraq since before the American invasion.

He's not driving wedges. He's building bridges. Sarkozy wants to win friends among the Anglo-Saxons. M Sarkozy's offer to Britain to play a full part in European affairs looks to me like an attempt to re-build France's damaged international reputation. In addition, it looks like an attempt to build the reputation of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Within France, M Sarkozy has interpreted the role of President in new and creative ways, not always to the liking of the French people. His love life has been played out in public and he does not have the gravitas that previous Presidents have earned among the French populace.

Senso says, "I don't know if you've heard of Les guignols de l'info but this is pretty much how they describe Sarko. Every time he shows his Rolex or his wife on TV, he takes a drop in the polls. Then he talks about Europe, America, etc. and he rises. Lather, rinse, repeat."

But why would he need to do that? Possibly, because the time is near when France will need a lot of friends. The French Prime Minister, Fran├žois Fillon has said that France is being protected from the world effects of the global financial crisis by the fact that it does not have a strong financial services community, yet the country itself is financially weak.

Sarkozy has declared his admiration for the business-oriented economic models of the English-speaking nations. This is in stark contrast to the social policies of all recent French governments, which have supported stronger rights for workers. The resulting victories for French unions and labour representatives have steadily eroded the competitive edge of French companies. French business leaders are being forced to take difficult decisions about where to locate their factories: in expensive, labour-constrained France, Or in low-cost, free-market countries like Romania and Hungary? Increasingly they are, despite native patriotism, choosing to move their production out of France.

The French government can't help but take notice. France does not have the strong German Mittelstand which powers its manufacturing-led economy. It does not have the strength of Britain's financial and service sectors, or the Brits' flexibility and mobility of employment and it certainly does not have the entrepreneurial, can-do sprit of the Americans.

So France faces a faltering domestic economy; a likely slow-down in the global economy and the desperate need to re-construct its manufacturing sector and re-build the service sector to improve its competitive position among international nations. But Chirac managed to alienate and offend a whole series of nations, not least the United States.

Now Sarkozy needs to re-build those burned bridges and at the same time learn how to transform his high-cost, highly restrictive Western economy to help France's businesses become competitive against the Chinese, Taiwanese and others based in low-cost countries. Unfortunately, he has little to offer the Anglo-Saxons in exchange for this help. He can deploy troops. He can sell France's technological superiority in nuclear engineering and the traditional French vision of a unified Europe. He can tinker with border controls and with immigration rules. And he -- and his wife -- can turn on the charm.

I'm not sure that even this overdose of Gallic charm was enough to persuade the dour Gordon Brown that his intentions were entirely honorabe. But on the other hand, Brown's position is far from secure. It may be that Brown needs Sarkozy just as much as Sarkozy needs Brown. And while the United States is focussed entirely on internal issues, the two of them appear to think they can take the limelight at the centre of the global political stage.

Sarkozy and Brown have just over six months until the new US President is chosen and then takes back the mantle of global political leadership.

In the meantime, each of them has an opportunity to make friends around the world and build a personal profile. Once the new President is installed in the White House, that opportunity will evaporate. Sarkozy must be hoping that he can smooth the path for the incoming US President, and that this will reap its own rewards in the future.

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