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French Election May Bring New Era in US-France Relations

French voters go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president to succeed Jacques Chirac. The two contenders are center-right Nicholas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at whether U.S.-French relations will change with a new president at the Elysee Palace.

Relations between France and the United States have been colored in recent years by one event: the war in Iraq. Outgoing French President Jacques Chirac and his then foreign minister Dominique de Villepin led the opposition to the March 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Experts say relations between Washington and Paris remain tense as a result of the diverging views on the war.

Simon Serfaty, an expert on Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says in the long run, President Chirac's views have been proven right.

"And even though we condemn him to this day here on this side of the Atlantic over his position on the eve of the war in Iraq, the fact is that the argument he made in December/January 2002, 2003 regarding the war, is the argument that has now been adopted by an overwhelming majority of Americans," he noted.

Experts such as Andrew Moravcsik, Director of Princeton University's European Union Program, say France has a reputation of being very anti-American.

"But the truth of the matter is when you go issue by issue, France is in 90 percent of the cases, an active and cooperative member of the West. And if you go down the issues - let's just take one example: using military force abroad. After the Iraq war, we customarily think of France as being opposed to any American-led operations, seeking to balance the United States as a hyper-power and so on. But in fact, in every intervention since the end of the Cold War, since the first Gulf War - in Lebanon, in Afghanistan, in the Balkans, in the Ivory Coast, in the Congo - the French and the Americans have been on the same side," he noted. "The Americans have supported French military operations and vice-versa. Iraq, in 2003, is really an exception. And no French politician in this election challenged that basic pro-Western, cooperative attitude of the French."

On Sunday, French voters go to the polls to elect a new president to succeed Jacques Chirac. The two contenders are center-right Nicholas Sarkozy and the candidate of the Socialist Party, Segolene Royal.

Experts say of the two, Sarkozy is more pro-American. He does not hide his admiration for the American entrepreneurial spirit and last September, he traveled to Washington and met briefly with President George Bush. Royal did not visit the U.S.

Charles Kupchan, a Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says during the closing days of the campaign, Sarkozy had to tone down his pro-American rhetoric.

"In part because Segolene Royal was coming after him, saying that he was too close to Bush and in some ways trying to portray him a little bit in the model of Tony Blair, who Europeans call 'Bush's poodle' - too obsequious, too willing to subjugate British interests to the Bush administration," he explained.

During a recent political rally, Royal proclaimed, "We will not get down on bended knees before George Bush!"

Many experts believe whoever is elected president of France will be an improvement, given the tense relations between Mr. Chirac and President Bush. But they say either Royal or Sarkozy will have to decide what kind of relationship they want with the United States, given the fact that in a public opinion survey last December, three-quarters of those responding said they want their next president to keep a distance from U.S. foreign policy.