Sarkozy and wife set for royal welcome in Britain

Sarkozy and wife set for royal welcome in   Britain

( AFP ) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his new wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy arrive in Britain on Wednesday for a two-day state visit that will combine pomp with politics.

Sarkozy will share the limelight with his model-turned-singer wife in their highest profile international engagement since their wedding in February as they meet Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The visit has been portrayed by the French media as an opportunity for Sarkozy to boost his ratings with a more statesmanlike image after months in which his personal life has played centre stage.

He and his wife will arrive in London at 1120 GMT and will spend the night at Windsor Castle, the queen's favourite home west of London, in a rare honour for a visiting foreign leader.

There will also be a procession through Windsor's streets in a horse-drawn carriage and a state banquet.

Afghanistan will be among the serious issues on the agenda. Sarkozy is expected to discuss the possibility of France sending an extra 1,000 troops for the international fight against the Taliban, with a view to a formal announcement at a NATO summit in Bucharest next month. Britain has 7,800 troops in Afghanistan.

After the splendour and ceremony of Wednesday, Thursday will see a break with tradition as a Franco-British summit is held at the ultra-modern Emirates Stadium of the London-based Arsenal football club.

Arsenal have a French coach, Arsene Wenger, and a sizeable contingent of French or French-speaking players.

Sarkozy and Brown are expected to announce a deal for France to help Britain build a new generation of nuclear power plants.

They will also call for greater transparency of financial markets, including full disclosure of write-offs by banks, in the wake of the ongoing market turbulence and the near-collapse of US investment bank Bear Stearns.

Sarkozy may also repeat the threat he made Tuesday that France was refusing to rule out a boycott of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics over China's crackdown in Tibet.

Regardless of the politics, the photographers' lenses will be trained mainly on Bruni-Sarkozy, 40, who has reportedly been working on her curtsying skills so that she can greet the 81-year-old queen in the correct fashion.

Pollsters blame the president's tangled personal life -- his second wife, Cecilia Ciganier-Albeniz, married her lover, events organiser Richard Attias, in New York on Sunday -- for a recent sharp dip in his ratings.

A survey released Sunday by France's Journal du Dimanche newspaper put Sarkozy's satisfaction rating at 37 percent and his right-wing UMP party suffered heavy losses in local elections earlier this month.

The visit should give Sarkozy and Brown the chance to turn the page on the strained relationship between their predecessors Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair.

Chirac and Blair fell out over France's strong opposition to the US-led, British-backed invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and relations were never fully repaired.

Despite the differences in their personalities, the dour Brown and ebullient Sarkozy appear to enjoy friendly relations and have known each other since they were both finance ministers.

Another political highlight of the visit should be Sarkozy's address to both houses of the British parliament on Wednesday - an honour bestowed on just 31 foreign leaders since 1939.

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