Sarkozy pledges to send more troops to Afghanistan

Thursday, March 27, 2008

LONDON -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his supermodel wife swept into Britain on Wednesday, mixing elaborate pomp with his impassioned warning that the West must beat the Taliban in Afghanistan no matter the cost.

Sarkozy played the statesman as he began his state visit -- the first by a French president to Britain in 12 years. Gone were his trademark shades and ubiquitous cell phone as he greeted Queen Elizabeth II and inspected rows of cavalrymen.

After a round of ceremonial duties, Sarkozy gave a fiery speech to a joint sitting of the House of Commons and House of Lords. He followed a powerful tribute to Britain's role in countering the threat of fascism in Europe with a promise to stand by London as it fights the Taliban.

"We cannot afford to lose Afghanistan," Sarkozy said, speaking in French. "Whatever the cost, whatever the expense, we cannot afford it."

Without specifying numbers, he pledged more French troops for NATO's mission in Afghanistan if Afghans also get more responsibility and there is better coordination of nonmilitary efforts.

The pledge underscores his determination to revitalize relations with Britain and the United States and put aside differences over the Iraq war.

Canada has warned that it will pull its 2,500 soldiers out of Afghanistan if other allies do not offer more help. It wants 1,000 more soldiers for anti-Taliban efforts.

The United States, which has appealed to its NATO allies to bear a greater share of the war-fighting in the region, welcomed Sarkozy's announcement.

The Times of London quoted President Bush Wednesday as saying that the French offer almost certainly guaranteed that the upcoming NATO summit would be a success.

Sarkozy won a standing ovation for his 45-minute speech, in which he called for Britain and France to cooperate more closely in Europe and to work together to press the U.S. on climate change.

"Who better than its closest, sincerest friends to remind the U.S. of its responsibilities?" he said.

The pomp -- and the opportunity to appear dignified -- are important to Sarkozy amid a sagging approval rating at home and questions about his attitude.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown plans lengthy discussions today with Sarkozy on Afghanistan, a possible joint nuclear energy project, climate change and the international response to unrest in Tibet.

But Wednesday's schedule focused mainly on pageantry -- and the public's gaze was fixed on Sarkozy's glamorous wife, model-turned-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who curtsied to the queen and chatted animatedly with her at Windsor Castle.

Bruni-Sarkozy, in a demur belted gray Christian Dior coat and pillbox hat, smiled as Prince Charles kissed her gloved hand in greeting as he met the visitors at London's Heathrow Airport.

"It was like a French Catholic schoolgirl meets Jackie O," said Lucy Yeomans, editor of Harper's Bazaar, likening Bruni-Sarkozy's outfit to the famously stylish Jacqueline Kennedy.

Britain's tabloids, however, greeted Bruni-Sarkozy in typical style -- printing a nude photograph she posed for in 1993. The original print is to be auctioned in New York by Christie's auction house.

The queen has bestowed Sarkozy with the Order of the Bath, a ceremonial British honor, and given him a framed book of British stamps, her office said. In return, the French leader offered her a copy of "Perfect Knowledge Of Horses," a book published in France in 1743.

On previous foreign trips, Sarkozy casually checked his cell phone for SMS messages and was last month caught making an undignified outburst at a French agriculture fair, chastising a member of the crowd with expletives.

But the French leader, nicknamed the "bling bling president" because of his extravagant tastes, appeared in a serious mood as he reviewed a guard of honor in Windsor and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey.

Later, wearing a white tie and a red sash, Sarkozy toasted the British monarch at a lavish state banquet at the castle's St. George's Hall.

"My wife and I will never forget this visit," he said, raising his glass to the queen and to the "brotherhood" of French and British people.

Sarkozy, who said Tuesday he could rule out a boycott of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, is likely to raise China's handling of protest in Tibet during his meetings in Britain. Brown insists he will attend the Olympics.

In his speech to Parliament, the French leader urged new dialogue between China's government and the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Associated Press writer Laurent Pirot contributed to this report.

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