MADRID, Apr 28 – French President Nicolas Sarkozy began his first state visit to Spain promising backing in the fight against terrorism and saying relations have "never been so strong," but it was his pop star wife who grabbed the spotlight.
Sarkozy was due to hold a summit Tuesday with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, with a brouhaha over disparaging remarks reportedly made by the French leader about his host threatening to overshadow proceedings.
But at the start of a visit initially filled with pageantry, as Sarkozy and the First Lady were welcomed by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia at their Pardo Palace outside Madrid, all eyes were on Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
As national anthems were played, Bruni-Sarkozy wore a black dress and a short bolero-type white blouse pleated at the back, black shoes with low heels and her hair loose on her shoulders.
And when meeting Sofia, she kissed the queen on both cheeks, rather than curtsy as she did before Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II during a visit to London last year, a moment that was captured in a now-famous photograph.
A spokesman for the royal palace explained that a curtsy before a Spanish monarch "is not an absolute obligation, but a habit adopted by some people."
She again kissed Princess Letizia on both cheeks when France’s first couple lunched with her and her husband, Crown Prince Felipe, at the Zarazuela Palace.
After the largely protocol meetings with the royal family, the visit turned political when Sarkozy addressed the French community in Spain numbering about 120,000, saying bilateral relations had "never been so strong."
The head of state stressed the two countries’ cooperation in the face of terrorism, which has hit Spain particularly hard, in the shape of armed Basque separatist group ETA and Islamists.
"In the face of this scourge, whether it takes on the hideous face of ETA or that of Al-Qaeda, we will not let down our guard… at the end of the road we shall win," he said later at a state dinner given by the royal couple.
King Juan Carlos thanked France for its "exemplary cooperation" in the "fight against terrorism and organised delinquency."
Considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States, ETA is blamed for the deaths of 825 people in its 40-year campaign of bombings and shootings to carve a Basque homeland out of parts of northern Spain and southwestern France.
Since the start of 2009, 11 suspected members of ETA have been detained in France and a further 11 in Spain, according to Spanish media.
When they meet Tuesday, Sarkozy and Zapatero are expected to emphasise their cooperation in the fight against ETA. The two countries will also sign a accord on internal security aimed in particular at strengthening their joint efforts against organised crime and drug trafficking.
Paris will also voice its support for Spain’s presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2010 and its willingness to cooperate with Madrid in the implementation in Europe of recent decisions taken by the Group of 20 nations in London aimed at combating the global economic crisis.
But Paris and Madrid have sought to defuse any possible tension over the recent controversy sparked when Sarkozy reportedly termed the Spanish leader as "not very smart" at a lunch two weeks ago with French lawmakers.
Sarkozy was forced to deny the reports, and Zapatero told a French newspaper last week that he enjoyed a "warm" relationship with Sarkozy.