State visit: For Hollande, it's good thing US, France are working hand in glove

French President François Hollande will take part in several events in Washington, culminating in a state dinner Tuesday. Then on Wednesday, he’ll travel to San Francisco to focus on Silicon Valley industries.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama (r.) and French President François Hollande (l.) walk in before speaking to members of the media following their tour of Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Charlottesville, Va.

President François Hollande’s France has turned out to be one of the closest allies of the United States under President Obama, with the two countries back from their Iraq spat of a decade ago like seldom before.

The two partners since Revolutionary War times are working hand in glove on key international challenges – from Iran’s nuclear program to Syria and counterterrorism in Africa.

It’s a good thing because otherwise, the Obama White House might have been less magnanimous in dealing with the jarring social curveball that Mr. Hollande let loose as Washington prepared for his arrival.

Shortly before this week’s state visit – the first for Mr. Obama since South Korea’s president was feted in October 2011 – Hollande announced that his relationship with companion and unofficial French first lady Valérie Trierweiler was over. Hollande had been photographed arriving via scooter for overnight visits at the apartment of a French actress.

It might have been a strictly French, if not personal, affair – if not that the White House had already announced that Hollande would be accompanied by Ms. Trierweiler. Not only that, but invitations had already been printed (including Trierweiler’s name) for the 300-guest state dinner that the White House will hold in Hollande’s honor Tuesday.

Hollande will now arrive stag for his visit – although accompanied by a sizable entourage including seven French ministers, members of the French parliament, and representatives of the French business elite. That still leaves the White House without the companion that first lady Michelle Obama would typically have during a state visit for highlighting issues of interest to the two countries. And it has caused fretting over the correct seating arrangement for the state dinner.

For the US, this state visit was supposed to be a safe one. The Obama White House – particularly parsimonious in extending Washington’s most prestigious invitation – had already suffered enough from state-visit politics.

Last year, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff disinvited herself from one over NSA spying. Before that, it had been the other way around – White House officials having to deal with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, miffed at getting only an official visit when the Turks considered a state visit to be in order.

All the hand-wringing over whom to extend an invitation to derives from the fact that the state visit is highly symbolic of a president’s vision of foreign policy and the partners needed to pursue that vision.

Presidents tend to use state visits either to court new friends whom the US would like on its side in a changing world – think George W. Bush and India – or to reaffirm old friendships that the US is relying on in the pursuit of key foreign policy objectives, says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Clearly, she adds, Obama’s intent in inviting Hollande was the latter.

“Here you have a longtime European ally of the United States, but one with a center-left leader who has engaged his country in important new theaters that are also of immense interest to the US,” she says.

Many Americans still remember the France that a decade ago said “non” to US intervention in Iraq (and many may now have concluded that perhaps the French weren’t so wrong). But more recently, France led the Western intervention in Libya, and it’s still leading – with US military assistance – anti-extremist stabilizing operations in Africa’s Sahel region.

It was also the France of Hollande that stuck its neck out in support of Western intervention in Syria last summer, before Obama backed off his threats upon realization of a chemical weapons deal with Syria.

Obama will be traveling to Europe more than usual this year, Ms. Conley notes, “so that makes this a really good time for a European leader to be invited on a state visit.” Obama will be in The Hague in April for a nuclear summit; in Sochi, Russia, in June for a Group of Eight summit; and in September for a NATO summit in Wales.

At the same time, she notes, the transatlantic alliance “has gone through a rough patch in recent months” over issues from NSA spying to discord over a Western response to turmoil in Ukraine. “So that makes this an opportunity to emphasize the underlying core principles” of the US-Europe partnership, she says.

Hollande’s visit will be full of symbolism meant to highlight the durability of the more than two-century-old Franco-American partnership. On Monday afternoon, Obama was to treat Hollande to a visit to Monticello, the Virginia home of one of America’s first Francophiles, Thomas Jefferson.

On Tuesday, Hollande will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of World War I in Arlington National Cemetery, and in the afternoon he will bestow the French Legion of Honor – France’s highest honor for foreigners – on six World War II veterans of the D-Day invasion of the Normandy beaches.

Following the state dinner, Hollande will continue without Obama to San Francisco Wednesday, where he will focus on the Silicon Valley industries and French efforts to play a growing role in innovation and cutting-edge “idea” enterprises.

French interest in California and its eye on the future is nothing new. President François Mitterrand also added a San Francisco leg to a visit to the US in 1984. But to underscore the reasoning behind Hollande’s visit to Silicon Valley, French officials note that none of the companies whose CEOs Hollande is expected to meet with, such as Facebook and Google, even existed when Mr. Mitterrand visited.

There may be another reason for Hollande to visit Silicon Valley, Conley of CSIS says.

Hollande may be intent on making innovation and economic renewal a focus of his trip, she says, but addressing those themes in Washington would have necessarily led to a discussion of the transatlantic free-trade agreement currently being negotiated between the US and the European Union. That trade deal is quite unpopular in France, Conley notes.

“Hollande has to be about getting some growth and dynamism back into the French economy,” she says. “But given some of these economic issues that have the French wary of” the US, “it’s just safer for him to do that in San Francisco than in Washington.”

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