President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have held wide-ranging talks at the White House on subjects including global economic recovery, efforts to impose tough international sanctions on Iran over its nuclear ambitions, and the situation in Afghanistan.
The talks came amid persistent questions about strains in their personal relationship, French cooperation with military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan, and steps the G-20 nations are taking to impose stronger regulation on the global financial system.
A day before, President Sarkozy delivered blunt remarks in a speech at Columbia University in New York City, taken by many observers as an advance message to President Obama.
No single country can run the world alone the French president said, while appealing for closer U.S. cooperation with Europe on new global economic rules.
But at the White House on Tuesday, the two men sought to dispel media and other speculation about any major rift, with President Obama referring to Sarkozy as his dear friend. "Over the past year, the president and I have worked closely on numerous occasions. We respect one another and understand one another, and we share a belief that through bold yet pragmatic action, our generation can bend the arc of history toward justice and towards progress," he said.
Each read a statement, and took only a single question from two reporters. President Sarkozy also addressed the wide speculation about divisions between them. "I thought to myself well, when we speak to one another people must be listening to our phone calls because I have seen reports on conversations and discussions which in no way resemble anything that has ever taken place between Barack Obama and myself," he said.
Both men reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen global financial system regulation. The talks took place as G-20 leaders, including President Obama and President Sarkozy released a statement urging recommitment to reforms.
They also discussed Afghanistan, where France currently has 3,750 troops and military trainers deployed.
Earlier, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that President Obama would make no specific request for France to increase these numbers. President Sarkozy called success in Afghanistan crucial to U.S., French and European security: "We have to have the courage to go to the end of our strategy [in Afghanistan] and explain that there is no alternative strategy," he said.
On Iran's nuclear ambitions and its defiance of demands to halt uranium enrichment, both leaders reiterated their commitment to moving ahead with strong United Nations sanctions.
Acknowledging there is no global unanimity on sanctions, President Obama said the door to dialogue with Iran remains open, but he hopes to move ahead on sanctions not in months but in weeks. "We have engaged. The door remains open if the Iranians choose to walk through it, but they understand very clearly what the terms of a diplomatic solution would be and in the interim we are going to move forcefully on a U.N. sanctions regime," Mr. Obama said.
Declaring that tougher sanctions are needed, President Sarkozy said France will work to ensure that Europe as a whole engages in the sanctions regime. "The time has come to take decisions. Iran cannot continue its made race," he said.
On the Middle East, President Sarkozy said the absence of peace there feeds terrorism. He also condemned Israeli settlement plans in East Jerusalem saying the process achieve nothing.
The French President also visited Capitol Hill, where his policies, particularly on the question of climate change, have often been the focus of criticism by U.S. lawmakers.
The French leader met with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, and was briefed on steps the U.S. Congress is taking on financial regulatory reforms.
The U.S. and French leaders both have battled low public approval ratings. President Obama suffered amid his push for health care reform, but has recently enjoyed a slight improvement.
An Ipsos poll conducted before the White House talks showed approval ratings for President Sarkozy, facing a range of domestic issues, falling 7 points to 32 percent in March, the lowest since his election in 2007.