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Tokyo: Japan, which prides itself on warm relations with the West, is looking on with unease at French President Nicolas Sarkozy, worrying he does not care about the Asian economic power.

Since taking office 14 months ago, the young French leader has not paid an official visit to Japan, a sharp contrast to his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who considered himself a connoisseur of Japanese culture.

When Sarkozy finally came last week for the Group of Eight summit, he did not meet one-on-one with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, despite finding time to go jogging and to meet on Japanese soil with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Publicly, the two countries have played down any spat

“There isn’t any problem between France and Japan. President Sarkozy has promised to pay a visit to this country sometime in 2009," said France’s ambassador to Tokyo, Philippe Faure.

He said about 10 French ministers have visited Japan this year, including Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whose trip was meant to mark the 150th anniversary of relations between the two countries.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, spokesman for the Japanese government, also said he was “not at all worried about relations between Japan and France."

Newspaper reports suggest otherwise

But the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said Sarkozy, who had already put off a visit to Tokyo scheduled for early July, cancelled a one-on-one with Fukuda at the G8 summit in the northern Japanese mountain resort of Toyako.

The Asahi also said Sarkozy clashed with Fukuda during the closed-door talks when the French leader proposed expanding the Group of Eight to include emerging economies, such as China and India.

Japan, which has fought unsuccessfully for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, has relished its role as the only Asian nation in the G8, seen as an elite club of Western leaders.

The French ambassador said Sarkozy never had a meeting with Fukuda scheduled at the G8. Faure added it was impossible to arrange a “serious visit" to Tokyo ahead of the G8, in part because Emperor Akihito does not ceremonially receive state guests on Sundays. The G8 summit opened on Monday.

Sarkozy mocked sumos in 2004, which the Japanese have not forgotten

Sarkozy did not help his image in Japan when in 2004 he mocked sumo as “battles between fat guys," diminished Kyoto’s famed ancient gardens as “grim" and called Tokyo a “suffocating city" in contrast with “magical" Hong Kong.

The 2004 remarks, as quoted by a French magazine, were an apparent attempt to differentiate himself from Chirac, who so loved sumo that he named his dog after Japan’s ancient sport.

“Chirac was a friend of the Japanese and in his time there were privileged relations between France and Japan," said Yasushi Gunji, a Japanese journalist who spent several years in Paris and wrote the book, “Chirac’s France."

Disappointment at Carla Bruni’s absence

The supermodel turned French first lady cancelled her attendance at the G8 at the last minute as she promotes her new album. Her no-show was particularly distressing to Japan’s tabloids, which had eagerly awaited her.

A well-informed source in Paris said the first lady sent a letter to Fukuda’s wife to express her “regrets at not being able to come to Japan, a country that she likes very much" and has visited several times.

But Valerie Niquet, director of the Asia centre at the French Institute of International Relations, said there was an incoherence in French policy towards Asia.

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