Barack and Francois, Presidential Buddies

Feb 11, 2014 6:45pm

WASHINGTON — France and the U.S. haven’t always seen eye to eye, but today President Obama received his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, as an honored guest and key geopolitical ally, with much pomp and circumstance at the White House.

Hollande arrived at the White House this morning alone, after his much-publicized split with girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler amid news of a tryst with actress Julie Gayet. Instead of female companionship, Hollande was left to enjoy the presidential bromance of Obama.

That friendship was evident at today’s state visit by French President Francois Hollande, a rare occurrence under the Obama administration, which has reserved such visits for key allies.

In 2003, as France opposed the Iraq war under then-president Jacques Chiraq, the U.S. House of Representatives staged a lexicological protest, directing its cafeteria to serve “freedom fries,” instead of French fries. Fast forward nearly 11 years, and the U.S. and France are the best of friends.

“We’ve come a long way from ‘freedom fries,’” a senior administration official told reporters this week, previewing the French president’s visit.

Hollande and Obama greeted each other warmly at two appearances today — at this morning’s arrival ceremony in 26-degree weather on the White House’s south lawn, and at a noon press conference in the East Room — referring to each other as “Francois” and “Barack” and noting U.S./French cooperation in conflicts and negotiations around the globe.

“Here, under the red, white and blue, and the blue, white and red, we declared our devotion once more to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — liberte, egalite and fraternite,” Obama said, pointing to Normandy, the Statue of Liberty, Charles L’Enfant’s design of DC, and current U.S./French cooperation on foreign policy.

“Bienvenue, mes amis,” the president told his French counterpart and his delegation.

“Mr. President, dear Barack, dear Michelle, ladies and gentlemen: It’s cold in Washington,” Hollande said, eliciting laughter at the outset of his remarks. (It was 26 degrees at the White House, per Weather.com)

“We stand together with the United States to address the threats of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons, together to solve the crises faced by the Middle East, together to support Africa’s development, and together to fight global warming and climate change,” Hollande said, referencing areas of cooperation in foreign policy.

Indeed, France and the U.S. have increasingly cooperated on global conflicts. France led the charge in Libyan airstrikes that led to Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011. More recently, Hollande called for military strikes in Syria, before Obama sought congressional approval of American action.

An ally on the United Nations Security Council, France also reportedly raised objections that toughened world powers’ interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. France sent troops to the Central African Republic, as U.S. military planes transported African peacekeeping troops to combat the country’s slide into chaos amid Muslim/Christian reprisal killings and widespread human-rights abuses.

Obama and Hollande toured Monticello on Monday, admiring the historical home of Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded Benjamin Franklin as America’s minister in France.

Tonight, they are scheduled to attend a dinner featuring American cuisine in a noticeably French style: caviar from Illinois, Vermont ribeye with shallots and mushrooms, and wines from California, Washington, and Virginia. Mary J. Blige will perform at a post-dinner reception.

At a joint press conference today, the two leaders stressed their ties despite the awkward, looming subject of NSA surveillance, which prompted France to summon the U.S. ambassador to express its displeasure, after French newspaper Le Monde reported that the U.S. spy agency had been eavesdropping on U.S. citizens.

“[T]here’s no country where we have a no-spy agreement. You know, we have, like every other country, you know, an intelligence capability, and then we have a range of partnerships with all kinds of countries. And we’ve been in consultations with the French government” about surveillance practices, Obama told a French reporter.

Iran, too, has caused a minor rift between the two governments of late. A group of 116 French businesspeople visited Iran to scout business opportunities, prompting Secretary of State John Kerry to say that Iran is not, in fact, “open for business.” France’s finance minister said the trip was in keeping with the nuclear deal, AFP reported.

Asked about the trip, Obama warned against premature investment in Iran, while Hollande said he warned French businesses not to invest until or unless the nuclear deal succeeds.

“Businesses may be exploring are there some possibilities to get in sooner rather than later if and when there is a actual agreement to be had, but I can tell you that they do so at their own peril right now because we will come down on them like a ton of bricks,” Obama said. “We expect full compliance with respect to the P-5 plus one during this interim.”

“I certainly let them know that sanctions were enforced and would remain enforced. And if contacts were to be made, with a view to a new situation in Iran — a situation where Iran would have renounced the nuclear weapon fully and comprehensively — well, unless such a new situation would prevail, no commercial agreements could be signed. That’s what I told French businessmen, and they are very much aware of this situation,” the French president said.

But none of that seemed to rankle the two leaders who have found themselves on the same page, even as the U.S. encountered difficulties with Russia in pressing for action in Syria, and with allies Germany and Brazil after spying on their heads of state. At today’s press conference, Obama announced he will travel to France in June to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, at Hollande’s invitation.

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