Francois Hollande's solo state visit kicks off at Monticello

President Barack Obama, right, watches as French President Francois Hollande, left, looks over items on on the desk during a tour of Thomas Jefferson's office at Monticello, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Charlottesville, Va. Leading the tour is Leslie Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) AP

President Obama greeted French President Francois Hollande Monday with a trip to Monticello, former President Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Virginia that offered a chance for the two leaders to celebrate their countries’ close history.

A noted Francophile, Jefferson served as the second U.S. minister to France prior to becoming the third president.

“As one of our Founding Fathers, the person who drafted our Declaration of Independence, somebody who not only was an extraordinary political leader but also one of our great scientific and cultural leaders, Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America,” Mr. Obama said after the two leaders toured the estate. “Our hope in starting our visit this way is just as we can extend back through generations to see the links between the United States and France.”

Hollande, too, said the bond between the two countries “are sustained over time.”

The French president is in the U.S. on an official state visit to discuss issues like cooperation on security and economic matters, but much of the attention has been on the fact that he is making the trip solo.

When the White House announced the visit and state 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, forcing 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.

But there will be plenty of policy issues for the two leaders to discuss, chiefly in the foreign policy arena: France has orchestrated military operations in Mali to help drive back radical Islamists linked to al Qaeda and is working closely with the U.S. on both the international response to the Syrian civil warand talks over the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

A senior administration official called France “a key partner” in facing security challenges around the world, particularly in Iranian nuclear talks and the tumult in Africa. Their role in Mali and the Central African Republic has been “critical,” the official said.

 In a joint op-ed in the Washington Post Monday morning, Mr. Obama and Hollande noted how far U.S.-French relations have come from a low point a decade ago when French opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq prompted some Americans call French fries, “freedom fries,” and boycott other French products.

“In recent years our alliance has transformed. Since France’s return to NATO’s military command four years ago and consistent with our continuing commitment to strengthen the NATO- European Union partnership, we have expanded our cooperation across the board,” the two leaders wrote. “We are sovereign and independent nations that make our decisions based on our respective national interests. Yet we have been able to take our alliance to a new level because our interests and values are so closely aligned.”

Monday was spent mostly on the formalities that accompany an official visit, including the visit to Monticello. The Virginia home of former President Thomas Jefferson, has been a popular visiting spot for presidents, dating back to President James Madison who made at least three trips there while in office. In addition to James Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, every president since Gerald Ford has made the trek to the mansion (though Jimmy Carter had left office once he visited, and Bill Clinton was president-elect during his 1993 trip).

Several foreign dignitaries have also visited, although the Thomas Jefferson Foundation staff believes Mr. Obama’s trip with Hollande marks the first time a U.S. president has accompanied a current foreign head of state.

 In addition to the bilateral meetings planned for Hollande’s visit, the two leaders will hold a press conference Tuesday and will visit Arlington National Cemetery to honor veterans of World War II. There will also be a state dinner in Hollande’s honor Tuesday evening.
  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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