Washington, Feb. 9: When President Barack Obama invited President François Hollande of France for a state dinner, the White House drew up a list of 300 guests to honour the visiting leader and his partner, Valérie Trierweiler. Engraved invitations, with the presidential seal in gold at the top, were printed and set to be mailed.
But there was an unexpected development. Hollande’s relationship with Trierweiler blew up in the midst of revelations of an affair with a French actress he had secretly been visiting by motor scooter. Suddenly, Trierweiler was no longer France’s unofficial first lady and no longer coming to the White House for Tuesday’s dinner. The thick ivory invitations with the words “The President and Mrs. Obama request the pleasure of” each guest’s company had to be destroyed and new ones printed without Trierweiler’s name.
L’affaire Hollande has proved to be a dangerous liaison for the tradition-bound White House. Although it is not unprecedented, not many foreign leaders arrive at the executive mansion stag for the most formal and coveted gala in Washington, and even fewer split from their partners just weeks before the festivities.
For a few days, at least, the White House social office was left to wonder whether the other woman — identified by the weekly tabloid Closer as 41-year-old French actress Julie Gayet — would come in place of Trierweiler. (She will not.)
All of which has posed challenges for a White House staff already nervous about holding the first state dinner in nearly two years, and for haute cuisine-conscious French guests no less.
The turn of events in the private life of Hollande, 59, posed a number of questions for the White House as well: Who should be placed next to the President in the seat Trierweiler would have occupied? Would any of the entertainment be inappropriate? Should there be dancing if the romantically complicated guest of honour has no one to dance with?
“That may be a bit of a protocol debacle there,” said Walter Scheib, the White House chef to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “It’ll be curious to see if he asks the first lady for a dance. That would be on the front of all the tabloids — Frenchman sweeps first lady off feet!”
The White House social office, discreet on all occasions, will not say what accommodations it has made. “The protocol is to pretend it doesn’t exist,” said Craig Roberts Stapleton, who served as Bush’s ambassador to France. “This is not a subject that will be high on the talking points that will be given to President Obama.”
The White House is nonetheless making an extra effort to put on display the nation’s historic and cultural ties with France. Obama will take Hollande to Charlottesville, Va., on Monday for a tour of Monticello, the home of Revolutionary America’s most prominent Francophile, Thomas Jefferson. Any separate spouse’s programme that typically would have been arranged has surely been cancelled.
For the state dinner, the Obamas will host an extravagant, multi-course, black-tie event with government officials, business leaders, political fund-raisers and celebrities like actor Bradley Cooper. To allow a larger guest list, the dinner will be held not in the State Dining Room, but in a pavilion-style tent on the South Lawn.
As it happens, Hollande is not the first French President to come alone. In 2007, his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, surprised the Bushes just three weeks before arriving for a White House dinner that was not technically classified as a state visit by announcing his divorce from his wife Cécilia.