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Hollande, Obama celebrate strong U.S.-French ties

President Barack Obama, middle, and French President Francois Hollande, left, listen during a tour of the kitchen at Monticello, President Thomas Jeffersons estate, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Charlottesville, Va., with Leslie Bowman, right, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President François Hollande joined President Barack Obama in mutual tribute Monday to what they called the deep bonds of friendship between their countries, at the start of a state visit the French leader is conducting solo after a few whirlwind weeks of disclosures about his complicated romantic life.

Warmly bundled well-wishers lined roads to wave as the two presidents passed in a heavily-armoured motorcade headed for Monticello, the Virginia hilltop home of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and its envoy to Paris in the years after France backed the revolutionary Americans seeking independence from Britain – and, as Mr. Obama put it during brief comments to reporters, "a Francophile through and through."

France and the United States are far closer today than 11 years ago when Paris refused to join the U.S.-led war to topple Iraq's ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein.

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In an article signed by both, the two leaders said the Franco-American "alliance has been transformed," in recent years as the two countries have worked "closely together in so many ways."

The two republics have forged closer military and political ties as France led Western intervention in Libya, was the most aggressive of the Western allies when Mr. Obama mooted military action against Syria last fall and has been quick to deploy troops to Mali and elsewhere against Islamist militants.

"Nowhere is our new partnership on more vivid display than in Africa," the two leaders said in the jointly authored article in the Washington Post. "In Mali, French and African Union forces, with U.S. logistical and information support, have pushed back al-Qaeda-linked insurgents, allowing the people of Mali to pursue a democratic future. Across the Sahel, we are partnering with countries to prevent al-Qaeda from gaining new footholds."

The rare state visit is the first the Obamas have hosted in more than two years.

The French president split from his common-law partner last month amid reports that he was having an affair with a French actress.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Hollande are mired in miserable approval ratings and both could use a boost from the lustre of a state visit.

On Tuesday, after a formal arrival ceremony at the White House, the state dinner will be the highlight of the three-day visit. White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard outlined the four-course menu: a slab of dry-aged rib eye beef, American caviar and salad representing Michelle Obama's garden will be among the offerings. The wine list is strictly American, as is the entertainment – Mary J. Blige, a nine-time Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter, producer and actress born in the Bronx.

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