French state visit: Hatchet buried as Barack Obama welcomes François Hollande to Washington

Warm welcome for French President who has stood by America over intervention in the Syrian civil war, nuclear negotiations with Iran and on countering terrorism in north Africa

washington

The French President François Hollande formally embarked on a state visit to the US today that had been overshadowed by his fraught love life – but one which underscores how far relations between the two countries have advanced since the “freedom fries” era of a decade ago.

Back then, Paris was the embodiment of the “old Europe” mocked by the Bush administration when it opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mr Hollande’s countrymen were derided as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” by sections of the American press, while French fries were renamed on the menus of Congressional restaurants.

Under President Obama, who welcomed his French counterpart to the White House amid much pomp and fanfare, almost everything has changed. France was Europe’s strongest advocate of Western intervention in the Syrian civil war, while Paris has supported a notably tough line in nuclear negotiations with Iran. The two have worked together closely on countering terrorism in north Africa.

Even the vulgar language used in a leaked phone conversation by the State Department’s top official for Europe over EU policy towards Ukraine has left France (unlike Germany) unruffled. Indeed the official – Victoria Nuland, – was attending both the dinner, as well as a lunch at the State Department.

Inevitably, not all is sweetness and light. The US was annoyed by the visit of over 100 French businessmen to Teheran soon after November’s interim nuclear deal. Mr Hollande was left high and dry when Mr Obama abruptly decided last September not to launch air strikes to punish the  Syrian regime for its apparent use of chemical weapons. But on this trip, any such edginess is being well hidden. “In recent years, our alliance has been transformed,” the two leaders wrote in a joint op-ed for The Washington Post and Le Monde.

On Monday, before the official portion of the visit, Mr Obama not only took the unusual step of personally welcoming Mr Hollande off his aircraft when it landed in Washington, but accompanied him on a visit to the Monticello estate in Virginia of Thomas Jefferson, the most famously Francophile of all US Presidents and reminder of France’s sentimental status as “America’s oldest ally.”

As Mr Obama welcomed his French counterpart to the White House, the easy personal relationship between the two was evident. “France and the US trust each other in an unprecedented manner,” Mr Hollande declared at a press conference –sidestepping last summer’s uproar over Edward Snowden’s revelations of US eavesdropping around the world.

Asked whether France had now supplanted Britain as Washington’s closest ally in Europe, Mr Obama did his own sidestepping, comparing the countries to his own two adored daughters. He could not choose between them: “both are wonderful in their own way”.

Both leaders promised to hold Iran to its commitments under the nuclear agreement, and enforce existing sanctions. Both demanded that Russia help hasten humanitarian relief to civilians in Syria, to alleviate what Mr Obama called the “horrendous” situation on the ground.

Throughout, the vicissitudes of Mr Hollande’s private life went unmentioned. But there was no concealing them at the dinner, which was to have been attended by his former partner Valérie Trierweiler. Beforehand, there was no confirmation of who would sit next to Mr Obama, in the place she would have occupied.

The menu itself made few gestures to the guest of honour: a resolutely American selection featuring home-produced caviar and steak and washed down with a selection of American wines.

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