(From left) First Lady Michelle Obama, French President Francois Hollande and President Barack Obama pose for an official photo before a state dinner at the White House. (AFP)
Washington, Feb. 12: In the end, the White House solved the most delicate protocol issue of yesterday’s state dinner for President François Hollande of France in a dignified but creative way.
Seated at President Obama’s right under a shimmering white tent on the South Lawn was Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, who 20 years ago mounted a provocative exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art titled “Black Male”.
Until a few weeks ago, the White House assumed that the seat of honour would go to France’s unofficial First Lady, Valérie Trierweiler. But Hollande came to the US without Trierweiler, his longtime partner, after announcing that they had split last month in the midst of a swirl of news media reports that he had cheated on her with a French actress.
To Michelle Obama’s left was Stephen Colbert, the comedian and television host, whose connection to France consists largely in his determination to pronounce his surname as if it were French (he is of Irish, English and German extraction).
The seating riddle thus solved, the Obamas and their 350 guests set about honouring Hollande at a lavish event that featured quail eggs, Hawaiian chocolate-malted ganache, and purple irises and free-flowing vines meant to evoke Monet.
Plenty of Hollywood names were in attendance: the film star Bradley Cooper, who was seen chatting with secretary of state John Kerry; the actress Cicely Tyson; and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays a dysfunctional vice- president in the HBO series Veep. She was seated next to the actual vice-president, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
In his toast to Hollande, Obama offered humorous aperçus about life in America from the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. “Vive la France, God bless America, and long live the alliance between our great nations,” the President concluded.
Hollande spoke of bestowing the French Legion of Honor on American veterans of World War II. “We love the United States and you love the French, but you don’t always say so because you are shy,” he said through a translator, drawing laughs.
For all the meticulous arrangements, the evening still seemed one spouse short, not least when the two Presidents descended the stairs to greet their guests, with a solo Michelle Obama behind.
If President John F. Kennedy, after visiting France in 1961 with his immensely popular wife, famously described himself as “the man who had accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris”, Hollande has been most conspicuous on this state visit for travelling alone.
Climbing out of his limousine just after 7pm, he was greeted by the Obamas, the First Lady in a full liberty-blue skirt and black beaded top by Carolina Herrera. The first couple towered over Hollande for a photo.
The guest list for the state dinner, as is traditional, drew from the worlds of politics, business, sports, news media and entertainment, with a nod to Americans of French extraction.
Among the most notable guests was Edith Windsor, 83, the New Yorker whose landmark lawsuit against the federal government for denying her tax benefits after the death of her female spouse knocked down the Defence of Marriage Act last year.
Among the news media figures invited were Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, and Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times.
As the guests passed a press gantlet on their way into the East Wing, they were quizzed on their French connections, offering answers that ranged from predictable to bewildering.