Ahhh, cheeseburgers. Diplomacy's comfort food.
President Barack Obama's nod on Friday to visiting French President François Hollande's youthful fondness for the fast-food sandwich was not the first time that leaders from both countries have turned to cheeseburgers at a potentially tense moment.
The June 2004 Group of Eight Summit brought together President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac a little more than one year after the invasion of Iraq, which deeply divided the two allies. American lawmakers angry, that Paris had opposed the war, voted to rename "French fries" as "Freedom fries" in their cafeteria. Air Force One pointedly served "Freedom Toast." (Neither food is known as "French" in France).
At a joint press conference, Bush thanked Chirac for his warm welcome on a recent visit to France. "The food was superb, the hospitality warm." Chirac more than returned the favor: "I'd like to thank once again the President for the hospitality here. The President was kind enough to mention French cuisine, but I can tell you that over the last few days, this cuisine here in America was certainly on a par with French cuisine and I ask the President to convey my thanks to the chef."
"He particularly liked the cheeseburger he had yesterday," Bush said with a broad grin.
"It was excellent," Chirac said appreciatively, drawing laughter from assembled reporters. Fast-forward eight years: Obama hosted Hollande for their first-ever meeting amid tensions over the French president's campaign promise to pull French combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year. The two leaders addressed that potential, errrr, "beef." And they talked about cheeseburgers.
As the meeting began, Obama referred to Hollande's youthful adventures in the United States, which he traveled in 1974 on a grant from a business school. The future president of a country famed for its food studied McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, both unknown at the time in France. " I could have made a fortune in cheeseburgers, but I finally chose politics," he told the New York Times.
After offering Hollande a "hearty congratulations" on his election victory, Obama noted that his guest "actually spent some time in the United States in his youth, studying American fast food--and although he decided to go into politics, we'll be interested in his opinions of cheeseburgers in Chicago."
"I want to thank President Obama for his vast knowledge of my life before I became a politician. And I want to say nothing that might suggest that cheeseburgers might have any flaws," replied Hollande.
"I just want to remember that cheeseburgers go very well with French fries," joked Obama.
"No declaration about French fries," Hollande said, in English, as the room emptied out.
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