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French President Francois Hollande to visit White House alone

Monday, 10 February 2014 - 11:50am IST | Place: Washington | Agency: Reuters

White House officials are giving a dismissive Gallic shrug to French President Francois Hollande's personal drama and preparing a state visit to showcase strong US-French cooperation on a host of global priorities.

Hollande, 59, who has just split from his longtime partner Valerie Trierweiler after an alleged affair with a much younger actress, arrives solo on Monday to begin two days of pomp and ceremony, including a high-profile visit to third US President Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate. 

It will be the first state visit hosted by US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in nearly two-and-a-half years, since South Korea's president visited in October 2011.

Hollande's split with journalist Valerie Trierweiler, who was considered the French first lady, prompted some anxiety initially at the White House since both Hollande and Trierweiler were named on the official statement announcing the visit. But as with most things involving the "no-drama" Obama White House, officials quickly adjusted and are preparing to fete a solo Hollande at a state dinner on Tuesday night.

Officials looking for a previous experience like this need only look back to 2007 when then-President George W Bush played host to his French counterpart at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, at an official dinner. Sarkozy had just split from his wife, Cecilia.

"It shouldn't change anything and it won't," Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, said of Hollande's visit. "He's asked the people of France to respect his privacy, and I assume he means that for Americans to respect that too."

At a time when American relations with Europe have been tested by revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping and, more recently, a US diplomat's secretly recorded expletive to dismiss the European Union, US-French relations have been productive.

This doesn't mean Hollande is happy about the eavesdropping. Hollande told Time magazine that this is a "a difficult moment, not just between France and the United States but also between Europe and the United States" because of spying practices that "should never have existed."

"A solid ally"

The United States and France, an alliance that dates back to the very founding of America in the late 18th century, are working together on Iran, Syria, restive North Africa and other global hot spots.

The collaboration is a far cry from a decade ago when the US-led war on Iraq led to strains and French refusal to participate prompted some Americans to rename the classic fried-potato dish "freedom fries" instead of french fries.

"France is a solid ally of the United States but always retains its independence," Hollande told Time.

Obama has shied away from having frequent state visits during his five years in office but is said to have been the driving force behind inviting the French leader to Washington. Officials say Obama and Hollande have a solid working relationship.

The two leaders start the visit with a pilgrimage to Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, on Monday. Thomas Jefferson was US ambassador to France from 1785-1789, developing a taste for fine French wines. The Monticello stop is intended to showcase the enduring alliance between the two countries. Jefferson was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence. Without French assistance, the fledgling American army might not have defeated the British.

On Tuesday, after a colorful arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn, Obama and Hollande will hold talks, then a joint news conference. Hollande will have lunch at the State Department with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. "During the visit, they will discuss opportunities to further strengthen our shared security, grow our economic and commercial partnership, and partner on the environment, climate change, and development," the White House said.

Both leaders could use the glow from a successful visit to boost their images at home. Hollande, struggling to reduce chronic unemployment in France, has a 24% job approval rating, according to Ipsos. Obama, after the rocky rollout of his signature healthcare law, saw his approval rating drop to about 40%, but it has rebounded slightly in recent weeks.

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