WASHINGTON (Reuters) — White House officials are giving a dismissive
Gallic shrug to French President Francois Hollande's personal drama and
preparing a state visit to showcase strong U.S.-French cooperation on a
host of global priorities.
Hollande, 59, who just broke up with his longtime partner after an
alleged affair with a much younger actress, arrives solo on Monday
to begin two days of pomp and ceremony including a high-profile
visit to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.
It will be the first state visit hosted by U.S. President Barack
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in nearly 2-1/2 years, since
South Korea's president visited in October 2011.
Hollande's split with journalist Valerie Trierweiler, who was
considered the French first lady, prompted some anxiety initially at
the White House since both Hollande and Trierweiler were named on
the official statement announcing the visit.
But as with most things involving the "no-drama" Obama White House,
officials quickly adjusted and are preparing to fete a solo Hollande
at a state dinner on Tuesday night.
Officials looking for a previous experience like this need only look
back to 2007 when then-President George W. Bush played host to his
French counterpart at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, at an official
dinner. Sarkozy had just split from his wife, Cecilia.
"It shouldn't change anything and it won't," Anita McBride, who was
chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, said of Hollande's visit.
"He's asked the people of France to respect his privacy, and I
assume he means that for Americans to respect that too."
At a time when American relations with Europe have been tested by
revelations of National Security Agency eavesdropping and, more
recently, a U.S. diplomat's secretly recorded expletive to dismiss
the European Union, U.S.-French relations have been productive.
This doesn't mean Hollande is happy about the eavesdropping.
Hollande told Time magazine that this is a "a difficult moment, not
just between France and the United States but also between Europe
and the United States" because of spying practices that "should
never have existed."
"A SOLID ALLY"
The United States and France, an alliance that dates back to the
very founding of America in the late 18th century, are working
together on Iran, Syria, restive North Africa and other global hot
The collaboration is a far cry from a decade ago when the U.S.-led
war on Iraq led to strains and French refusal to participate
prompted some Americans to rename the classic fried-potato dish
"freedom fries" instead of french fries.
"France is a solid ally of the United States but always retains its
independence," Hollande told Time.
Obama has shied away from having frequent state visits during his
five years in office but is said to have been the driving force
behind inviting the French leader to Washington. Officials say Obama
and Hollande have a solid working relationship.
The two leaders start the visit with a pilgrimage to Monticello,
near Charlottesville, Virginia, on Monday. Jefferson was U.S.
ambassador to France from 1785-1789, developing a taste for fine
The Monticello stop is intended to showcase the enduring alliance
between the two countries. Jefferson, the third U.S. president, was
one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence. Without
French assistance, the fledgling American army might not have
defeated the British.
On Tuesday, after a colorful arrival ceremony on the White House
South Lawn, Obama and Hollande hold talks, then a joint news
conference. Hollande will have lunch at the State Department with
Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.
"During the visit, they will discuss opportunities to further
strengthen our shared security, grow our economic and commercial
partnership, and partner on the environment, climate change, and
development," the White House said.
Both leaders could use the glow from a successful visit to boost
their images at home. Hollande, struggling to reduce chronic
unemployment in France, has a 24 percent job approval rating,
according to Ipsos.
Obama, after the rocky rollout of his signature healthcare law, saw
his approval rating drop to about 40 percent, but it has rebounded
slightly in recent weeks.
(Reporting by Steve Holland;
editing by Jim Loney and Jonathan