President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcome France’s President Francois Hollande on Tuesday for a rare bit of pageantry the White House hopes isn’t upstaged by a scandal abroad.
The White House announced a French state visit and dinner in November and said at the time that Hollande and France’s first lady, Valerie Trierweiler, would join the Obamas at dinner. But that was before a French magazine published photos of the French president – in a motorcycle helmet – leaving an apartment where he reportedly carried out an affair with an actress.
The assignation led to Hollande, who was not married to Trierweiler, arriving by himself on Monday, as he met up with Obama to tour Monticello, the Virginia estate of Thomas Jefferson, one of the United States’ earliest envoys to France.
The White House has insisted there was no disruption to Tuesday night’s dinner plans, though The New York Times reported that 300 invitations that included Trierweiler’s name had to be scrapped.
White House officials involved in the planning said cancellations aren’t unexpected – even at the last minute – and the dinner will go on as planned. They previewed the dinner on Monday – pointing out the French furniture that President James Monroe acquired for the White House in 1817 as a sign of longstanding ties between the two countries.
The affair is likely to have zero effect on the talks between Obama and Hollande – which the two previewed in a joint opinion piece Monday in The Washington Post and Le Monde, where they boasted of close ties between the two nations and shared goals in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and securing an end to the conflict in Syria.
“Presidents hold very few state dinners, so each one is special,” said White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “From the guest list to the menu to the entertainment, we try to ensure that every detail reflects the unique character of our bilateral relationship.”
In addition to Obama hosting Hollande, Hayden said, “it’ll be a chance to open up the White House to those French and American citizens who make the relationship endure.” About 350 are expected to attend the dinner.
Hollande may get a “sly wink” from Obama about his private life, but it will play no role in diplomacy between the two nations, said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the program on transatlantic relations at the Atlantic Council.
Yet he expects Hollande’s private life to garner attention in the U.S.
“It’s there. It exists as a story,” he said.
The French generally turn a blind eye to such issues because of their strong desire for privacy, but this time, perhaps because of Hollande’s plunging approval ratings amid the nation’s economic problems, his private life has garnered surprising attention in France.
“It will come with him,” said Heather Conley, a senior fellow and the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
She agreed, however, that Hollande’s lack of a date creates no diplomatic issues.
Visiting heads of state often travel without a spouse, said Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, where he served as research director of the Center of the United States and Europe, and a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff.
He noted Obama usually travels overseas without the first lady, though last year he took his wife and daughters, Sasha and Malia, to Africa.
Still, noted Shapiro, “reporters will write about (Hollande’s private life). They will definitely write about it. People care about sex more than anything else.”
The protocol predicament posed by Hollande’s private life is scarcely the first time that something unexpected has marred the pomp and flourish of a state visit. A publicity-hungry couple from Virginia who weren’t on the guest list slipped through security at Obama’s first state dinner in 2009, prompting congressional hearings.
And in 1970, an otherwise well-choreographed visit by French President Georges Pompidou was marred when demonstrators protesting the sale of French warplanes to Libya jostled Pompidou and his wife on a side trip to Chicago.
The number of state dinners has declined in recent years, this being the seventh state or official visit for the Obama administration, the White House said. The visit will begin with a morning arrival ceremony at the White House, followed by a bilateral meeting between the two presidents and a press conference. Hollande will also have lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department.
The White House dinner will be held in a tent on the south lawn of the White House and will feature what the White House says are “delicacies from across the United States,” including caviar farmed from estuaries in Illinois, paired with quail eggs from Pennsylvania and 12 varieties of potatoes from farms in New York, Idaho and California. The centerpieces include towering quince branches and white and purple irises, inspired, the White House said, by Monet’s water lilies.
Wine from California, Washington state and Virginia will be served, including a chardonnay from Monticello. Recording artist Mary J. Blige, who sang at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., will be the evening’s entertainment.
“For more than two centuries, our two peoples have stood together for our mutual freedom,” the two presidents wrote in the opinion piece. “Now we are meeting our responsibilities not just to each other – but to a world that is more secure because our enduring alliance is being made new again.”
By Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar
McClatchy Washington Bureau