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With a kiss on each cheek, D.C. and Paris are ready to make up

Times Staff Writer

Laurent Mellier remembers the dark days of 2003, when drivers would spot the French-flag sticker on his Honda and yell at him. Alain de Chalvron’s low point came when a movie audience erupted after a character mentioned France and people around him began shouting insults. For one French diplomat in Los Angeles, it was watching children dump bottles of French wine into the street outside the consulate.

“It was very insulting,” the diplomat said.

French expatriates here in the New World had a rough few years of it after France opposed the Iraq war. But with the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy this year, there is a sense of giddy relief -- tempered by a gentle Gallic cynicism -- that the tide has turned.

Sarkozy loads Elvis Presley onto his iPod, vacations in New Hampshire and happily embraces his nickname, Sarko l’Americain. More to the point, his policies closely align with those of the United States. In the Bush administration, there has been a collective swoon.

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Sarkozy’s official visit to Washington, which begins Tuesday, is the first by a French head of state since 2001, the latest upswing in a centuries-old on-again, off-again relationship.

“The heated rhetoric of a few years ago was unhealthy and unnecessary,” said White House spokesman Gordon D. Johndroe, speaking of France under President Jacques Chirac, who visited the United States in 2001 and did not return to America. Sarkozy, Johndroe said, “wants to work closely with us, and we want to work with him.”

In the French diplomatic and cultural corridors of Washington, enthusiasm for the renewed affections is pronounced.

At the embassy, staff members are scurrying to meet the intricate security and protocol demands of a head-of-state visit. They have to arrange where and when Sarkozy will greet people, who gets to shake his hand, and the guest lists for events that are scheduled to the minute and include a black-tie dinner at the White House. They say the workload is made lighter by the sense that the Bush administration is also excited by the visit.

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“We’ve got a new style in the presidency that has improved . . . relationsbetween the two countries” considerably, said French Embassy spokesman Emmanuel Lenain.

Another embassy staffer, who was not authorized to speak to the press, spoke more bluntly on condition of anonymity: “It will be a lot of work, the logistics are heavy, but it will be fun. It’s a really, really nice feeling to stay in the press in a good way.”

Franco-U.S. relations began slipping after 2001 amid trade and climate-change disputes. With the advent of the Iraq war, relations hit bottom as Chirac railed against U.S. unilateralism.

In 2003, then-House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) hit back: “Do you know how many Frenchmen it takes to defend Paris? It’s not known, it’s never been tried.” The chairman of the administration committee at the time, Bob Ney (R-Ohio), attacked culinarily, requiring the House cafeteria to dub its offerings “freedom fries” and “freedom toast.” The words “French” and “weasel” suddenly became synonyms on Fox News.

De Chalvron, the D.C. bureau chief for a French TV network, felt “resigned and sad,” especially because American reaction to the disagreement was so personal. “Here in America it was . . . ‘cowards’ and whatnot,” he said. “In France, it was about Bush and an illegitimate war.”

Time passed. The war in Iraq grew increasingly unpopular in the United States, the House cafeteria started selling French fries again, and France got a new face at the helm.

On Thursday, Blunt took to the House floor to urge colleagues to attend Sarkozy’s speech to Congress. “I hope we have the kind of presence here that would indicate our optimism about the Sarkozy government,” he said.

The change of heart -- mainly a Republican shift -- was spurred in large part by Sarkozy’s policy shifts. He has offered more French support on Iraq, in the form of economic aid, technical advice and diplomacy. In August, Sarkozy echoed President Bush in declaring a nuclear Iran “unacceptable.” Sarkozy has also indicated he might like France to take on a greater role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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Bush, who had a chilly relationship with Chirac, has the added pleasure of meeting with a like-minded soul. Sarkozy loves long bike rides, avoids alcohol, and ran a campaign that stressed hard work, discipline and tax cuts. Sarkozy even has his own set of critics who say he relies too much on neo-conservatives for foreign policy advice.

“I think he’s the kind of president Americans can like,” said Mellier, the director of a French cultural center in Washington. He still sports a French-flag sticker on his car.

“The French-American relationship is very passionate,” Mellier said. “It’s either big love or big hate. Right now, we’re on the love side.”

Sarkozy arrives in Washington at 2 p.m. Tuesday and will catapult into a schedule designed to highlight the “love side.” After a French American business group meeting, a reception and a ceremony for American World War II veterans, he will attend the White House dinner.

On Wednesday, Sarkozy will meet with American Jewish groups, speak to Congress and sit down with the Congressional French Caucus, then go to Mount Vernon with Bush for a working lunch. Sarkozy, dubbed l’hyperpresident by the French media, will leave for France at 3:30 p.m., slightly more than 24 hours after he arrived. For the French expatriates awaiting his visit, excitement about Sarkozy’s trip is mitigated by a sense that in politics, as in life, love can be an ephemeral thing.

“For me,” said the unnamed Washington-based diplomat, “it’s almost too good to be true.”

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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