With French President François Hollande at his side, President Obama joked at the White House Tuesday that on the French leader’s first trip to America in 1974 as a young man, he crossed the country “studying” the phenomenon of American fast food.
Indeed when Mr. Hollande sits down Tuesday evening at the White House state dinner in his honor, he’ll be served American cuisine – but it won’t be hamburgers and hot dogs.
The two presidents are celebrating what they say is the closest cooperation between the two old allies in years, if not decades.
At a White House press conference Tuesday afternoon – which Mr. Obama opened by wishing everyone there a “bon après-midi,” or “good afternoon” in French – the two leaders painted a tableau of unity and common interest on issues ranging from Syria and Iran’s nuclear capabilities to climate change.
But just as almost any wedding is about “the dress,” interest in Hollande’s state visit – at least to the extent it extends beyond the French leader’s tumultuous affairs of the heart – is largely focused on the state dinner Barack and Michelle Obama will hold for Hollande Tuesday night.
The 350 guests will assemble in a heated tent on the South Lawn and be seated at tables featuring bouquets of blue flowers – iris and delphinium. The lavish meal will include a range of American produce, from “caviar” – not culled from some distant sea but “from the estuaries of Illinois” according to the “Across America” menu – to Colorado beef served with 12 varieties of potatoes selected from farms in New York, Idaho, and California.
The “Winter Garden Salad,” consisting of “petite” radishes and carrots, pays tribute to Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden, where – according to the menu – “little hints of spring are already starting to sprout.” The red wine vinaigrette will be made with a hint of honey from the White House beehive.
The chocolate malted cake to be served for dessert will boast bittersweet chocolate from Hawaii, tangerines from Florida, and will be served “à la mode” with vanilla ice cream from Pennsylvania – although the American adaptation of a French expression may confuse the French leader, since no Frenchman would associate “à la mode” with ice cream.
Entertainment will be provided by singer Mary J. Blige.
Of course the issue on every guest’s mind will be the state of Hollande’s personal relationships. Not to be outdone by his predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy – who announced just days before his 2007 visit to Washington that he was getting a divorce – Hollande recently announced the end of his longtime relationship with former French journalist Valerie Trierweiler. Hollande had been caught by the French press arriving for a late-night rendezvous at the apartment of a French actress.
The French and American journalists assembled at the White House press conference may have wanted to ask Hollande about his personal affairs, but instead they kept to serious international issues.
On Syria, the two leaders announced that their two countries will be seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution this week to force the Syrian government to allow unrestricted humanitarian access to the country’s besieged – and in some cases, starving – civilian population.
On Iran, both leaders insisted they will continue to uphold existing sanctions even as international negotiations get under way this weekend toward a comprehensive resolution of Iran’s nuclear challenge.
As for a recent delegation of dozens of French businesses that traveled to Tehran, Hollande said he could not control the private sector’s travel agenda but added, “I constantly let them know that sanctions are enforced and will continue to be enforced.”
For his part, Obama – perhaps in a signal to Congress, which largely disapproves of the sanctions relief that Iran won in an interim deal – issued a warning to companies that might test the waters by doing business with Iran, saying, “We will come down on them like a ton of bricks.”
With the two countries, allies from the days of Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette, professing to see virtually eye to eye even on contentious issues like a transatlantic free-trade deal under negotiation and NSA spying, one French journalist asked Obama if perhaps France had replaced Great Britain as the European power having a “special relationship” with America.
But Obama answered without hesitation, as if he had come prepared for the question.
“I have two daughters, they are both gorgeous and wonderful and I would never choose between them,” he said. Beaming, he added, “That’s how I feel about our outstanding European partners.”