Sarkozy meets Obama to discuss Middle East, Afghanistan and Iran

French leader's White House visit comes at a pivotal moment for both leaders, and much speculation about friction between the two.

WASHINGTON // The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will meet Barack Obama at the White House today for wide-ranging talks with a heavy emphasis on Middle East issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the war in Afghanistan and efforts to curb Iran's nuclear programme. The meeting comes at a pivotal moment for both leaders, particularly for Mr Sarkozy, whose popularity has dipped amid a sluggish economy and whose party suffered huge defeats in recent regional elections. The sit-down with Mr Obama, who is popular in France, is seen as a chance for Mr Sarkozy to beef up his foreign policy credentials.

For Mr Obama, meanwhile, the meeting comes on the heels of two historic victories: the passage of healthcare reform legislation and the signing of a new strategic arms control treaty with Russia. Both achievements strengthen his hand in foreign policy, which many expect to become a bigger focus of his presidency after the healthcare debate consumed much of his first year in office. There has been much speculation about friction between Mr Obama and Mr Sarkozy, starting with Mr Obama's decision last year to decline an invitation to a state dinner while on a visit to Paris, which many interpreted as a personal snub to his French hosts. But Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow for Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said much of the perceived turbulence between Washington and Paris has been exaggerated.

"I don't think Obama and Sarkozy have carved out an especially close relationship; they have spent little time together," he said. "But the relationship is a solid and quite workable one." Still, there have been plenty of political differences between the outspoken Mr Sarkozy and his more reserved US counterpart. France has agreed to send just 80 additional military trainers to Afghanistan this year, a smaller commitment than other European allies and fewer than the Obama administration had hoped for. Mr Obama, who visited Kabul on Sunday, is expected to ask for an even greater French contribution in his meeting with Mr Sarkozy.

In remarks at Columbia University in New York yesterday, the French president assured a US audience that France would "remain at your side in Afghanistan". France has committed about 3,700 troops to the war. Mr Sarkozy has been among the most vocal leaders pushing for a new round of sanctions against Iran, a position that also has occasionally put him at odds with Mr Obama, whose initial focus was on diplomatic overtures. The French president's frustration with the US approach seemed to boil over last year when he told the UN Security Council: "We live in the real world, not in a virtual one."

Justin Vaïsse, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Centre on the United States and Europe, said the hardening of Mr Obama's approach to Iran in recent months could bring the leaders closer together. The leaders are "more or less converging on many different issues", he said. "Sarkozy has been looking forward to this meeting for a while, and the fact that Obama is ready to grant is an important symbol."

The two leaders were expected to focus on climate change and financial regulatory reform, key issues for Mr Obama and Mr Sarkozy, who takes over the chairmanship of the G-20 and G-8 groups of leading world economies next year. Mr Sarkozy was also expected to raise complaints about a Pentagon contract for a mid-air refueling tanker that the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), has said favours its US rival, Boeing.

In his remarks at Columbia, Mr Sarkozy urged the United States to take the lead in instituting global financial regulations, saying the United States "should reflect about what it means to be the world's number one power". "The world needs an open America, a generous America, an America that shows the way, an America that listens," he said. Mr Sarkozy was scheduled to meet several US legislators during his visit to Washington. He and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, plan to meet the Obamas for a private dinner tonight.