When François Hollande sits down to dinner with Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday, many eyes will be fixed on the "empty chair" beside the French president, following his split with Valérie Trierweiler after reports of an affair.
The trip will illustrate Hollande’s now very definite split from journalist Trierweiler, a predicament which the president likely entertained while he was carrying out his alleged affair with actress Julie Gayet, judging by the speed at which his relationship dissolved.
Probed by journalists on Trierweiler’s status as first lady on January 14, Hollande said he would clarify the issue before the trip to Washington, making it something of a deadline (which he was in advance of - he confirmed his split with Trierweiler on Jan 25).
President Obama and wife Michelle had expressed eagerness - formulaic no doubt but nonetheless - in welcoming François and Valérie, whose predecessor Carla Bruni, wife of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, is said to have got along famously with the American First Lady.
“Michelle and I look forward to welcoming President Hollande and Valérie Trierweiler,” Obama said in November, long before the Gayet affair emerged.
Since then, France has been rocked by the revelation of the affair, Trierweiler checked into hospital for "un coup de blues", Gayet has sued Closer magazine for violation of privacy and Hollande has seen his approval ratings climb and then plummet to their lowest ever - below 20%.
Despite promises from White House spokesperson Jay Carney that the trip would go ahead with “no changes”, logistical concerns surfaced this week amid rumours that organisers might seat either Digital Economy Minister Fleur Pellerin – also on the Washington trip – or IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde – also invited to the party – next to the president during the state dinner on Tuesday.
The event and inevitable photo opportunities will certainly cause some level of embarrassment to Hollande, but he is determined to cold-shoulder probing journalists.
In an interview with Time magazine about his trip to Washington, there was no mention of his affair, in what was perhaps a precursor to the trip itself. In place of the questions readers would no doubt have wanted asked, the article cited previous comments Hollande made on the affair (in which he made clear he would not talk about it).
“He wants to wrest the conversation back to important things like fixing France and shoring up the country’s global influence,” journalist Catherine Mayer wrote.
Hollande also has to cover the Islamist threat in north Africa, the war in Syria - which will enter its third year in March - and the easing of sanctions against Iran, which saw some 100 French companies racing to Tehran this week, sparking harsh criticism from US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Hollande and Obama will also discuss data protection after it was revealed in October that the National Security Agency had been intercepting French citizens’ phone calls.
Hollande is also expected to press Obama, along with executives from Google and Facebook, on the “tax optimisation” of Silicon Valley giants in Europe, which France says is losing EU countries millions in revenue.
Ironically, Hollande is also in town to promote France as a major player in the US-dominated new technology field. Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg, alongside Pellerin, will be joined by executives from a number of French start-ups such as car-sharing service BlaBlaCar in visiting San Fransisco on the second leg of the three-day trip.
In a first for a Fifth Republic president, Hollande will not be making a speech to Congress, a decision which was made due to time constraints, according to a French official cited by Le Point.
The trip is France’s first state visit to the US since 1996, when Jacques Chirac met with Bill Clinton.
Date created : 2014-02-09