French President François Hollande’s suddenly public romantic entanglements have forced some re-arranging of chairs at next week’s glittering White House state dinner.
It seems Mr. Hollande won’t be bringing either the jilted French first lady or his actress-mistress to the White House.
As befits the formality of ceremonial diplomacy, the official view of hosts President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle is that nothing has happened.
“There are no changes,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said after Mr. Hollande’s complicated love life became embarrassingly public last month, sending long-time partner Valerie Trierweiler to hospital in shock and revealing that Julie Gayet, just nominated for a French César as best supporting actress, had been the President’s lover for two years. Pictures of a helmeted Mr. Hollande riding his motor scooter to Ms. Gayet’s flat filled the tabloids.
Mr. Obama “looks forward to seeing President Hollande for the state visit,” his spokesman said and declined to answer whether Mr. Hollande had a date for the evening. “On issues of the delegation that the French come with, I would refer you to the French government.”
Apparently Mr. Hollande is flying solo but – at least at this stage – that’s just Washington gossip. The much-awaited guest list, along with the menu, the entertainment and the wines to be served remain state secrets.
Soon after he arrives Monday, the first stop on Mr. Hollande’s three-day visit will be Monticello, the Virginia hilltop home of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and the then-fledgling nation’s most famous envoy to Paris. Visiting Monticello was intended to underscore centuries of close ties between the United States and France. But the Monticello stop has now taken on a certain irony given that it was in Paris that Mr. Jefferson turned Sally Hemings, his 14-year-old slave, into his mistress and fathered at least one of her six children.
Modern tours of Monticello often mention Ms. Hemings’ relationship but it may be omitted from Monday’s agenda.
State visits – and the highlight dinner – remain “the highest form of recognition,” said Erik Goldstein, a professor of international relations at Boston University. “They can signal a new stage in relations or testify to longstanding goodwill.” They can also sour relations as Prof. Goldstein has written, citing the infamous visit by former French President Charles de Gaulle to Canada in 1967 when he delivered his “Vive le Québec libre” call from the balcony of Montreal’s city hall.
Nothing so dramatic is expected from Mr. Hollande. Yet for all the months of careful planning intended to send just the right message in the nuanced world of foreign relationships, such events have a habit of producing surprises.
The Obama’s first state dinner for India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was marred by a gate-crashing pair of celebrity pretenders, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, whose penetration of a supposedly ironclad security screen upstaged the occasion.
Two years later, a state dinner for China’s President Hu Jintao went slightly sour after brouhaha over whether wines selected for the meal jumped in price after getting a nod from the White House.
Last year, the state dinner planned for Brazil was scrapped after an unprecedented snub from President Dilma Rousseff who cancelled the visit to Washington following revelations that U.S. spies were tapping her conversations.
“There always seems to be a side story,” says Anna Gawel, who edits the Washington Diplomat, the magazine that charts the fortunes of Washington’s huge diplomatic community. “Mr. Hollande has created an automatic side story in that he is going solo,” she added.
The Obamas, like the Bushes before them have shown little interest in the expensive, formal affairs, hosting only six state dinners each. By comparison, in his two terms, Bill Clinton held 23 state dinners. Ronald Reagan had 35.
Meanwhile, the sniping has started about whether the Socialist Mr. Hollande is being snubbed, not by the Obamas but by Republican Speaker John Boehner. Unlike all six previous French presidents afforded the honour of a state dinner, Mr. Hollande wasn’t also invited to address a joint session of Congress, as the French press has acidly noted. (The last Canadian prime minister invited to speak to both houses of Congress was Brian Mulroney, a quarter of a century ago.)
Still, Mr. Holland’s state visit will break some new ground. It will be the first that social media followers can follow on the White House’s Twitter and Facebook. It will also feature – also for the first time – invitees to the formal welcome ceremony Monday on the South Lawn who were chosen from online ballots.
In additional to Monticello on Monday and the White House dinner on Tuesday, the French president will fly to California to launch a new U.S.-French Tech Hub.
(Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled Anna Gawel's name, and incorrectly identified the publication she edits. It is called the Washington Diplomat.)