Hollande's personal life takes center stage on cusp of U.S. visit

An official visit from French President Francois Hollande was an opportunity for the U.S. to showcase its close relationship with a critical ally, but has quickly become overshadowed by the salacious details of Hollande’s personal life.

 When the White House announced the dinner in late November, the French president’s partner and the country’s first lady, Valerie Trierweiler, was supposed to join him. But the pair split in January after allegations that Hollande was having an affair with actress Julie Gayet. Now, Hollande will be coming alone – a move that forced the White House to destroy 300 invitations that also included Trierweiler’s name, according to the New York Times.

The news has already distracted from Hollande’s work, including a news conference to unveil more business-friendly policies to revive the economy and a trip to meet the pope. His approval rating stands at less than 20 percent, the lowest since he was elected in 2012

The news also stands to overshadow the state visit, which was billed by the White House as a chance to “discuss opportunities to further strengthen the U.S.-France security and economic partnership.”

Cooperation on international affairs has been a particularly important part of the relationship for Mr. Obama in the last year in several foreign policy crises, like the Syrian civil war. When the British parliament blocked any military action against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons, it was the French government that prepared to strike if necessary. And when Mr. Obama – who backed the use of force in response to the chemical weapons attack – put the issue before the U.S. Congress, France waited for a decision before acting.

Earlier in the year, the French military began an air operation to help soldiers in Mali fight radical Islamists linked to al Qaeda that had taken over the northern part of the country.

And now, France is one of the six countries working on a deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program, a top foreign policy goal that has put Mr. Obama at odds with his own party and the success or failure of which could define his second-term foreign policy.

Although the French scolded the U.S. over surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) last October, there has been less publish outrage over the issue than other countries have expressed, straining diplomatic relations with the U.S. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was scheduled to attend a state dinner in the U.S. last October, but postponed it indefinitely after revelations about NSA spying.

The formal discussions and joint press conference, along with the state dinner itself, will be held Tuesday. Monday is a day for some of the many formalities associated with a state visit: Mr. Obama and Hollande will visit Monticello, former President Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, and dine with the presidents of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

This will be the seventh state dinner thrown by the president and First Lady Michelle Obama, on par with the relatively low number held by former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. Their predecessors, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, each held more than 20.

The last French state dinner took place during Clinton’s presidency, when the White House hosted then-French President Jacques Chirac.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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