KENNEBUNKPORT (Maine): It was not a summit, not even a working lunch. Just a social meal between two world leaders who happen to be vacationing near each other. That, at least, is how the White House described Saturday’s sit-down between President George Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But there is more to it than a get-to-know-you.

By welcoming Sarkozy to his parents’ seaside home, Bush is laying a foundation for what he hopes are drastically improved relations with France over the rest of his term. In turn, the newly elected Sarkozy is eager to bond with Bush and display a pro-American mind-set.

“It would be impossible to think of Jacques Chirac stopping by Kennebunkport for lunch,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow for Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This speaks volumes for the desires on both sides to try to turn the page.”

Chirac, the former French president, had a bitter relationship with Bush. He opposed the war in Iraq and clashed with Bush over climate change and other matters.

Sarkozy, by contrast, has promised that the United States “can count on our friendship,” while reminding Bush that friendship means respecting differing views.

So this lunch, casual as it may be, marks the symbolic start of something more: the “new era of relations with the French,” as White House spokesman Tony Snow put it.

In a telling sign, Sarkozy apparently never considered postponing the date even after he had to suddenly dash from his New Hampshire vacation spot back to Paris for a funeral.

Sarkozy was to fly back to the United States before having a few hours with Bush, first lady Laura Bush and their family. The French president and his wife, Cecilia, will likely be offered a spin on a Bush speedboat when they arrive.

Sarkozy gives Bush a chance to shore up support in the core of Europe, although the new leader has clearly echoed Chirac’s opposition to the Iraq war.

“Bush realises that Europeans have either left Iraq or they’re heading for the exits,” Kupchan said. “And the Europeans may not think the war was a wise move, but they’ve stopped the finger-pointing. I think it’s safe to say that both sides have put Iraq behind them.”

That still leaves plenty of ground for Bush to build new ties with France. Building pressure against Iran to halt its suspected nuclear weapons pursuits is one area; pushing the UN Security Council to speed up humanitarian efforts in the Darfur region is another.

Then there’s Afghanistan, where Sarkozy has shown ambivalence about the French mission.

“I don’t think the French are getting ready to pull their troops out,” Kupchan said. “But the last thing Bush wants is for the French, the Germans or others to go wobbly on Afghanistan. If a major country were to do so, the whole coalition could start unravelling.”

Sarkozy is expected to discuss such matters formally with Bush in Washington this fall.

As for Saturday’s lunch, there was no agenda, except for an effort to keep it private.

White House aides say the two leaders may discuss world hot spots — Iran, Lebanon, Sudan. Yet they have no plans to take questions or issue comments afterward. Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters to expect few details from the White House.

“I know there’s always an appetite for more and more information,” she said. But the invitation was for “a nice casual lunch during the Sarkozy’s vacation”.

Laura Bush extended the offer to the Sarkozys more than two months ago in Germany, during a meeting of world leaders. President Bush had his first true get-together with Sarkozy at that meeting. It was cut short, though, when Bush got a bad stomach bug.

In France, Sarkozy caused a considerable stir by opting to be in the United States for his first extended vacation as president. He chose Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, about 80 kilometres from the rocky shores of the Bush compound known as Walker’s Point.

Sarkozy said he wanted to see the real America — small towns and tranquillity. He made unintended news, however, by getting into a public flap with American photographers.

In his brief stop in Maine, he was in for a true Bush experience.

His hosts were former President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. The extended Bush family is in town this weekend, including the current president’s twin daughters.

Some signs of protest are expected.

Anti-war protesters have long scheduled a demonstration in Kennebunkport on Aug 25. But Bush will be gone by then, and with Sarkozy coming to town, some protesters planned to hold a peace vigil on Saturday morning at the police checkpoint near the Bush compound.

Meanwhile, Bush has been enjoying himself in vacation mode.—AP

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