WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama will Tuesday highlight a new national security dimension to America’s oldest alliance as he deploys the full pageantry of a state visit for France’s President Francois Hollande.
A 21-gun salute and full military honors await Hollande on the chilly South Lawn of the White House, before a day of talks on issues ranging from Iran to climate change, trade to combating Islamist threats.
Later, Obama and Hollande will toast what the French leader described as a forever friendship forged during a time of revolution more than 200 years ago.
But Hollande will be flying solo at the state dinner in a huge marquee sumptuously decorated with French accents, amid turmoil in his love life which made global headlines. The authenticity of the Franco-US alliance, often tumultuous, lies in its resilience: ties are now tightening a decade after they ruptured over Iraq.
Washington has welcomed and provided logistical support for France’s interventions to quell the spread of Islamic militants in Africa’s Sahel region.
The allies are also key players in the group of world powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, and blame President Bashar al-Assad for gross atrocities in Syria.
France was also to the fore in a military adventure in its own neighborhood in the Libya operation which overthrew Moamer Kadhafi after an initial US bombardment. Hollande opened his three-day visit to the United States with a rare flight for a foreign leader aboard Air Force One on Monday.
The presidents then toured the Virginia homestead of Thomas Jefferson, seeking to forge a personal bond in richly symbolic surroundings.
The US leader said Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence, ambassador to France and the third US president, represented “what’s best in America.”
“But as we see as we travel through his home, what he also represents is the incredible bond and the incredible gifts that France gave to the United States, because he was a Francophile through and through.”
Hollande extended the historical allusion to include the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who fought for America’s independence in George Washington’s revolutionary army. “We were allies in the time of Jefferson and Lafayette. We are still allies today. We were friends in the time of Jefferson and Lafayette, and we will remain friends forever.” Symbolism will cede to serious business on Tuesday, with Oval Office talks likely to focus on the war in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program and Ukraine’s political crisis.
The leaders will also likely discuss French military operations in Mali and the Central African Republic — Washington has provided air transport, intelligence support and logistical help for both French missions in Africa. A proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the United States will also be on the agenda, as Obama faces a tough domestic fight to win authority to negotiate trade deals in a mid-term election year.
On a personal note, Hollande hopes to leave embarrassment from his split from girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler — France’s former first lady, behind. But her absence will be noted at the state dinner when guests will savor American caviar, quail eggs, rib-eye steak, and Vermont blue cheese, washed down with a selection of American wines.
Unlike some presidential couples, notably Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, the Obamas have been sparing with their official hospitality. Tuesday’s event, featuring music from Mary J. Blige, is only the seventh state or official dinner hosted by the First Couple in five years in the White House.
It is also the first such occasion of Obama’s second term. Hollande’s trip is the first full state visit by a French leader to Washington since 1996 and is expected to highlight the “excellent working relationship” between the United States and France, according to sources at the Elysee. But the pair will also discuss issues that have bedeviled relations, including concerns over mass US spying in France.
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