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Sarkozy needles Bush

NICE, November 15 – French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken digs at US President George W. Bush in recent days, toning down his pro-American stance as Bush prepares to leave office.

Sakozy vowed to improve relations with the United States when he succeeded former president Jacques Chirac last year, taking some flak in France along the way for his enthusiastic support of the United States.

But ahead of Saturday’s Group of 20 nations summit in Washington on the world financial crisis, Sarkozy repeatedly needled Bush over the Republican president’s handling of Russia’s war with Georgia in August and US economic policy.

Sarkozy, who helped broker a ceasefire agreement that ended hostilities in Georgia, underscored his different approach from Bush on Thursday when he received a French foreign policy journal’s award for "political courage".

"When on August 8 someone had to leave for Moscow or Tbilisi, who defended human rights?" Sarkozy asked rhetorically, at a ceremony in the Elysee palace as he accepted the prize from Politique Internationale journal.

"Was it the president of the United States who said ‘This is unacceptable’? Or was it France which kept up dialogue" between Russian and Georgian leaders, said Sarkozy, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

"I remember the American president’s call the day before our departure for Moscow: ‘Don’t go there, they (the Russians) want to go to Tbilisi, they’re 40 kilometres away. Don’t go, (just) condemn it.’

"We were there with (Foreign Minister) Bernard Kouchner, as if by chance while we were there, the ceasefire was announced," he said.

Franco-American relations were frayed by Chirac’s opposition to the Iraq war, but Sarkozy vowed to bring the old allies closer together, earning an invitation to the Bush family compound in Maine during a US vacation in 2007.

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But his tone has changed in recent days.

During an EU-Russia summit on Friday, Sarkozy cited the conflict in Georgia again as he took a veiled shot at Bush, who will hand the keys to the White House to Democrat Barack Obama in January.

"Between the strategy of some of Georgia’s friends and the strategy of the European Union, Europe’s was more effective," Sarkozy said.

"As president of the (EU) Council, I have never waved the military threat, unlike others," he said.

White House officials said Friday they were puzzled by criticism from French President Nicolas Sarkozy of President George W. Bush just hours before the two leaders were due to meet here.

"I am not sure what President Sarkozy is talking about. President Bush has been and is committed to resolving the issue between Russia and Georgia," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Washington responded to the Russian advance by sending naval vessels to the Black Sea, ostensibly to transport humanitarian aid.

"I’m not sure what the agitation by warships in nearby waters achieved," Sarkozy said.

The White House was also mystified by that comment.

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"I do not know what warships he is referring to, but I think the people of Georgia greatly appreciated the US Navy ships that delivered much needed humanitarian supplies to them," Johndroe told AFP.

The world financial crisis has also been a source of disagreement between Paris and Washington.

The conservative French leader has repeatedly pointed to America’s "responsibility" in the financial turmoil.

He targetted US financial policy again on Thursday, warning that he would have a stark message to deliver in Washington Saturday at the summit of the Group of 20 developed and developing countries.

"I leave for Washington tomorrow to explain that the dollar, which at the end of World War II was the only world currency, can no longer claim to be the sole world currency," he said.

Sarkozy has said several times that the Washington meeting should tackle currency issues, alongside efforts to improve the transparency and regulation of the financial markets.

Bush has acknowledged that the world financial system needs reform, but not as deep as Sarkozy proposes.

Sarkozy’s insistance on laying the foundation for a second summit in February with the Obama administration shows the French government’s desire to turn the page on the Bush presidency.

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