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The Sarkozys turn on the charm in Britain

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  • French President Nicolas Sarkozy in UK for two-day state visit
  • Sarkozy wins standing ovation as he pledges support for NATO in Afghanistan
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By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- She came. She curtsied. She conquered.

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The French leader and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy pose with the queen and Duke of Edinburgh on Wednesday.

Chic Carla Bruni-Sarkozy -- like a cross between a Catholic schoolgirl and Jackie O according to one fashion writer -- won the hearts of the British public, and the media, with her grace and the demure grey outfits she chose, stylishly reflecting the color of Windsor Castle and the traditionally sullen British skies.

As for the 1993 pictures of the president's bride in her birthday suit, predictably recycled by the British tabloids, members of the public I encountered were universally on Carla's side. "Typical media" they sniffed. "That was then, this is now. Good luck to her."

At times the visit has been almost a case of "the president came too."

It reminded me of when President John F. Kennedy, on tour in Europe at the time First Lady Jackie Kennedy was an international fashion icon, thanked his hosts in one city for "allowing me to accompany my wife here."

But Monsieur Sarkozy, determined to bury the image of the "President Bling Bling" in shades and chunky watches amid the pomp and pageantry the British do so well, scored his own success too with a fiery speech to lawmakers calling not just for entente cordiale but for a new fraternite or brotherhood between the two nations.

His passionate oration earned him a genuine standing ovation from the hard-boiled parliamentarians.

Sound off: What do you think of the Sarkozys?

After the sourness of the Blair-Chirac years, poisoned by differences over Iraq, the British were almost nonplussed by a French leader actually ready to say thank you for what Britons did for France in World War II.

They are simply unused to a French president who bounces in on his built-up heels wanting to be friendly. One astounded sketch-writer described his bridge-building address as like being doused in Chantilly cream from a high-pressure hose.

Brits, one of a minority of NATO members who've been doing the hard fighting in southern Afghanistan, will have appreciated especially Sarkozy's expressed willingness, on certain conditions, to send more troops to Afghanistan, something they have been urging all Europeans to do.

For both Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his host on the second day of the state visit, there is a group therapy bonus. Both suffered the frustration of serving under long-time dominant figures they were keen to push aside, in the persons of Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. Both did well in their first weeks in office. But both have since found the going hard.

Sarkozy's UMP party took a drubbing in the recent town hall elections in France, Brown's Labour Party languishes 10 points behind the opposition Conservatives in opinion polls.

They both crave and need success and the partnership possibilities are obvious.

Traditionally the strongest alliance in Europe is the bond between France and Germany. But Sarkozy's fizzing theatricality and headline grabbing does not sit easily with the stolid step-by-step incrementalism of Chancellor Angela Merkel. She doesn't like his touchy-touchy personal style, his attempts to bully the European Central Bank. She has emasculated his plans for a Mediterranean Union.

So Sarkozy, no stranger to honeymoons, has a new opportunity. The Lune de Miel Franco-Britannique now being headlined by French newspapers makes sense. Brown too, having made an idiot of himself over his refusal to go to Portugal in time to sign the Lisbon Treaty with his fellow European leaders, can do with a top table buddy to help ease him back into the European mainstream.

There again, though there could be problems. Cooperation on nuclear power will be easy for France, which gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear reactors compared to Britain's 20 percent. But an extension of nuclear power is not popular with the British public.

Joint efforts in curbing illegal immigration will be popular in both countries. The two nations work happily together on international issues like Iran's nuclear program, Darfur and Afghanistan. Anything Sarkozy and Brown -- both former finance ministers -- can do together to help counter the credit crunch panic on the markets will be welcomed.

But Sarkozy's admiration for most things British does not extend fully to the market-ruled Anglo-Saxon economic model. He has a strong streak of protectionism.

While he has been hinting at boycotting the opening ceremony of the Olympics to protest China's behavior over Tibet, Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband has insisted that "wrecking the Olympics won't do anything for human rights in China."

Brown and Sarkozy are at opposite ends of the spectrum over Turkey's bid to join the EU.

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And Sarkozy's price for France fully rejoining the NATO command structure, an increased role for European Union countries in defense, is anathema both to the British and the US, who see it as undermining the essence of the Nato alliance.

Building Sarkozy's brotherhood is going to take time. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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