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U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande address a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, February 11, 2014. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande address a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, February 11, 2014. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

As Hollande visits, Obama lauds deepening ties with France Add to ...

Relations with France have never been warmer, President Barack Obama said Tuesday, prompting an immediate question as to whether Washington’s oldest ally was now more favoured than Britain.

With President François Hollande looking on at a joint press conference, Mr. Obama grinned and then evasively pointed to the risks of picking a a favourite.

“I have two daughters, and they are both gorgeous and wonderful, and I would never choose between them,” said Mr. Obama. “That’s how I feel about my outstanding European partners: all of them are wonderful in their own way.”

France is “not only our oldest ally but one of our closest,” said Mr. Obama, adding the Franco-American relationship was “much deeper than it was five years ago, ten years ago, 20 years ago.”

Mr. Hollande, in the U.S. for a three-day state visit – the first accorded a French president in nearly two decades – wasn’t about to be drawn into the “most-favoured“ political parlour game.

“I have four children, so that makes it even more difficult for me,” he said, adding that France wasn’t seeking to cozy up to the United States. “We’re not trying to be anyone’s favourite,” he said.

Mr. Hollande – travelling solo after his romantic entanglements became embarrassingly public last month and his affair with an actress prompted Valerie Trierweiler, France’s former first lady to move out – will be feted at a glittering state dinner Tuesday evening.

Both leaders have been at pains to smooth over recent differences – especially over U.S. spy agencies monitoring conversations overseas, including the calls of some allied leaders – and focus instead on historic ties and the current closeness.

“Mutual trust has been restored,” Mr. Hollande said, referring to the revelations of U.S. spying. Asked if that meant France was now among the inner circle of “no-spy” countries, Mr. Obama said there was no country in the world with which the United States had “a no-spy agreement,” but that new, tougher policies would respect privacy rights not just of U.S. citizens at but foreigners overseas as well.

Mostly the state visit has, so far, been a series of Franco-American mutual admiration events.

“We were allies in the time of Jefferson and Lafayette,” Mr. Hollande said Monday when Mr. Obama took him to Monticello, the Virginia estate of the third U.S. president, who was the new republic’s envoy to Paris for five years. “We are still allies today. We were friends at the time of Jefferson and Lafayette and will remain friends forever.”

Forgotten, almost, was the frosty era barely a decade ago when France refused to follow the U.S. in invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, and furious Americans launched an ad hoc campaign to rename the fast-food staple, “Freedom Fries.”

On Tuesday, as their joint news conference, the two leaders extolled each other as courageous partners in forging global security.

Pressed as to whether they could do more to end the horrific civil war in Syria, Mr. Obama said modest progress had been made in securing the the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s regime’s chemical weapons but admitted much remained to be done.

“We still have a horrendous situation on the ground in Syria,” he said. “With every passing day, more people are suffering.” But the President said the currently stalled talks in Geneva still offered the possibility of progress. Syria is “one of our highest national security priorities.”

Both leaders took a shot at Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for blocking further United Nations Security Council resolutions that would demand the Assad government allow humanitarian assistance unimpeded access to civilians trapped in besieged Syrian cities.

“Russia is a hold-out,” Mr. Obama said, referring to its threatened veto at the Security Council. “The Russians cannot say they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when there are starving civilians. It is not just the Syrians responsible, the Russians as well if they are blocking this kind of resolution.”

Last fall, when Mr. Obama threatened air strikes against Syria, President Hollande was the only Western leader to offer to joint military action. That call to arms – coupled with Moscow’s belated brokering – led to a deal in which Mr. al-Assad agreed to send more than 700 of tonnes of poison gas abroad for destruction. But Damascus has shipped only a few truckloads and may be stalling.

“It’s only partial destruction and it certainly doesn’t go far enough,” Mr. Hollande said, adding that new pressure may need to be applied.

Mr. Obama warned: “The state of Syria itself is crumbling, that’s bad for Syria, it’s bad for the region and it’s bad for global security.”

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