France's President Nicolas Sarkozy leaves behind a romantic sojourn in New York for an encounter he's long been waiting for: talks Tuesday with President Barack Obama in the White House.
The meeting may boil down to one question: Will Obama persuade Sarkozy to buck popular resistance and send more troops to Afghanistan?
Fortifying the international force in Afghanistan is a fresh concern for Obama after his first presidential trip to Kabul. And a key aim of Sarkozy's trip to Washington is to show that France is a firm U.S. ally in fighting terrorism, from central Asia to North Africa and beyond.
"We will remain by your side in Afghanistan," Sarkozy said in a speech at Columbia University on Monday. "In the face of terrorism, we cannot be divided."
In his no-holds-barred speech, Sarkozy criticized the U.S. health care system and scolded the U.S. for not listening closely enough to what the rest of the world has to say.
But underlying the criticism was a clear respect for American dynamism and openness, and admiration for Obama. Sarkozy has hosted Obama twice in France, though Tuesday marks his first White House visit.
"You are very loved in the world but we expect a lot of you," Sarkozy said Monday to his largely American audience. "In Europe, we are your friends. In Europe, we admire you. You don't have to worry about that."
Obama and Sarkozy agree on wanting new sanctions on Iran for its nuclear activities. They both want stalled Mideast talks to resume. They both say something should be done to better regulate the financial arena to prevent future crises, though they don't always agree on how far.
"France is an invaluable partner and ally of the United States," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Monday.
But will that translate into more forces for Afghanistan?
France has about 3,750 troops and trainers in Afghanistan, but Sarkozy resisted calls by Obama last year to send many more. Some other NATO allies have also been cautious, even as the U.S. is deploying 30,000 more troops to try to reverse gains made by the Taliban.
Two Western diplomats said Obama will ask Sarkozy for more military or police trainers. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private.
French trainers have been among those killed in Afghanistan this year, and polls show most French voters don't see the point.
"It is not easy to explain that French people are dying in Afghanistan," Sarkozy said.
A French diplomat said France would make its decision based on what the generals on the ground say is needed, not on political expediency. That diplomat was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Sarkozy may not risk an unpopular decision with his own popularity at record lows, and with his conservative party suffering from fractures and badly beaten in recent regional elections.
After a bruising few weeks at home, Sarkozy was basking in the attention at Columbia — and his wife's front-row gaze. Amid bloggers' speculation about strains in their marriage, Sarkozy and ex-supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy made every effort to appear the happy couple at the university and during outings around New York.
Sarkozy later hosted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his hotel Monday for discussions on Iran and the Mideast.
In Washington, Sarkozy arrived at the Senate for talks with Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sarkozy brought his son, Louis, along for the meeting. French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde also took part. Climate change was expected to be a top topic in the talks with Kerry and later with the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The Sarkozys will join the Obamas for a private dinner in the White House, in what the French presidential palace calls a first-of-its-kind invite and a sign of esteem for America's oldest ally.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.
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