François Hollande sat between Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at a state dinner on Tuesday, putting to rest protocol questions over his solo trip to Washington as the two presidents toasted strengthened ties between France and the US.
The A-list guest roster for the biggest social event so far of Obama’s second term – which included celebrities, Democratic donors, politicians and business leaders – has helped to limit talk of the scandal back home which led to Hollande coming without a partner.
Among the 350 guests were actors Bradley Cooper, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Mindy Kaling. Comedian Stephen Colbert was seated next to the first lady.
The lavish dinner followed a joint press conference in which Obama and Hollande hailed the longstanding ties between the US and France, saying the two countries had managed to rebuild a relationship that “would have been unimaginable even a decade ago” in the fallout from France's refusal to support the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The Obamas were on the front steps of the White House to greet the French president, with the first lady dressed in a black and liberty blue silk gown by Venezuelan-American designer Carolina Herrera.
When asked whether they spoke any French – a common question throughout the evening – most of the guests replied “un peu,” or “not very much”.
In his dinner toast, Obama welcomed the guests with a hearty “bonsoir” and then confessed, “I have now officially exhausted my French,” after making a similar joke on Monday when addressing journalists with “bonjour”.
He then delivered the requisite praises of all things French – “especially the wine”.
Hollande gave a good portion of his remarks in respectable English before switching back to French.
“We love Americans, although we don’t always say so,” he told the crowd.
Much of the focus in the run-up to Tuesday’s dinner had centred on the fact that Hollande would be coming without a partner following his very public break-up from former girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler after allegedly being caught in a tryst with another woman.
The White House had invited Hollande and Trierweiler to come for a state visit in November, the first such honour for France in two decades. But just weeks ago, the couple abruptly split after a tabloid magazine published photographs of Hollande arriving on scooter at the apartment of actress Julie Gayet late in the evening.
Guests at the dinner light-heartedly brushed off questions about the scandal.
“I think the French are way cooler than we are on a whole lot of fronts,” Ben Jealous with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said, joking that they have “way better gossip”.
“I don’t get involved in those things,” demurred actress Cicely Tyson.
The Hollande affair is not the first state dinner complication the White House has had to contend with in recent years.
A 2009 dinner for India was overshadowed by revelations that aspiring reality TV stars Michaele and Tareq Salahi had managed to slip in without an invitation. A planned state visit and dinner for Brazil last October was also cancelled with barely a month’s notice after President Dilma Rousseff chose to stay home to protest US surveillance of overseas targets, including her own country.
In November 2007, Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, also soloed at an official White House dinner a month after divorcing his second wife.
Over the last five years, Obama has held six state or official dinners. George W. Bush held a total of just six in his eight years in office, while Bill Clinton played host to 30 and Ronald Reagan more than 50.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
Date created : 2014-02-12