STRASBOURG, France — On the eve of a NATO summit meeting here, President Obama offered a compact for a renewed partnership with Europe, saying “America is changing but it cannot be America alone that changes.”
President Obama met with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France ahead of the NATO summit in Strasbourg.
Speaking at a town hall meeting in this eastern French border city, Mr. Obama offered his thoughts on a wide catalogue of global issues, starting with Thursday’s Group of 20 summit in London on the global economic crisis, which he said heralded “a new era of responsibility” in dealing with the recession.
Hundreds of people, many of them students from France and Germany, applauded him loudly as he spoke in a sports hall, particularly when he evoked efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles and close the Guantánamo Bay detention center. He also drew enthusiastic cheers when he insisted: “The United States does not, and will not, torture.”
The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 soured relations between the United States and some European countries, particularly Germany and France, which bitterly opposed the war. Other nations, like Britain, joined the effort to topple Saddam Hussein.
Offering a new tone, President Obama lavished praise on his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, and, in a symbolic gesture, France agreed to accept a single prisoner from the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba to assist Washington with shutting down the facility.
“Thanks to the great leadership of President Sarkozy, courageous on so many fronts, it’s hard to keep up,” Mr. Obama said at a joint news conference before the town hall meeting.
For his part, Mr. Sarkozy said President Obama will be heading back to Europe in June to walk the beaches of Normandy on the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings by American and Allied forces. Mr. Sarkozy said that France will never forget what the United States has done for it.
The NATO summit meeting on Saturday is likely to focus on the alliance’s track record in Afghanistan, and Mr. Obama sought to play down reports of American displeasure with France’s commitment to the international campaign against the Taliban.
“I have not had to drag France kicking and screaming in Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said, adding that Mr. Sarkozy understood that terrorist sanctuaries there presented a threat to Europe as well as to the United States.
Mr. Obama has pledged a major increase in American troops in Afghanistan and has sought new commitments from NATO allies. “We asked our NATO partners for more civilians and military assistance,” he said at the town hall meeting.
He urged a shift in attitudes. In America, he said, there had been “a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world,” and there had been “times when America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” Mr. Obama said.
But in Europe, he went on, there had also been anti-American attitudes. “On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common,” President Obama said. “They are not wise.”
Mr. Obama is approaching the midway point of his first European tour as president, and will attend a dinner just across the border in Germany with alliance leaders Friday night before the formal summit meeting in Strasbourg on Saturday.
He and first lady Michelle Obama arrived in France on an overcast morning after two days in London. A short time later they were welcomed at the elegant Rohan Palace in central Strasbourg by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Sarkozy.
The European media made much of the meeting between Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Sarkozy, both of whom are known for their sartorial splendor. Mrs. Obama wore a black overcoat emblazoned with magenta flowers, while Mrs. Sarkozy opted for a silk dress in a subtle shade of gray.
At the news conference with Mr. Sarkozy, Mr. Obama praised a French decision to return to full membership in the alliance after an absence of more than 40 years from its military command.
He lauded France as America’s “oldest ally, our first ally,” and spoke of Mr. Sarkozy’s “initiative, imagination, creativity.”
But Mr. Obama also urged European powers to bolster their military capabilities and shoulder more of the alliance’s burdens. “We want strong allies,” Mr. Obama said. “We are not looking to be patrons of Europe. We are looking to be partners of Europe.”
Mr. Obama, who met with President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia in London to begin restoring relations between the two nations, said the United States and NATO had “core disagreements” with Moscow, including last year’s Russian invasion of Georgia.
“We think we have to send a very clear message to Russia that we want to work with them, but we cannot go back to the old ways of doing business,” President Obama said.
Referring to Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Obama urged NATO countries to draw a line. “We cannot have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” he said. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is intended for civilian purposes only.
The war in Afghanistan has not drawn the enormous public protests in Europe that preceded the invasion of Iraq.
However, there were clashes in Strasbourg on Thursday between the police and nearly 1,000 protesters who tried to enter the city center. The protesters, some of them masked, set garbage cans on fire and smashed a dozen bus stop shelters. On Friday, the French police said that of 300 protesters who had been detained, 107 remained in custody, The Associated Press reported.
The anti-NATO protesters marched from a so-called peace camp set up on the outskirts of Strasbourg, where security is already tight. As many as 30,000 police officers are on duty in the city and just over the border in Kehl and Baden-Baden, Germany, where some events will take place.
After his meeting Friday with President Sarkozy, President Obama planned separate talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany just across the border in Baden-Baden.