When President Obama built a case last fall for strikes against Syria after the government of Bashar al-Assad was accused of a chemical weapons attack, he found no stronger ally ready to use force than François Hollande, the president of France.
Then Obama backed away from the strikes, seeking congressional approval and politically isolating Hollande.
On Monday, the American and French presidents did their best at the start of a two-day state visit to paper over such differences and make clear that they are on the same page on a wide range of challenges.
Obama and Hollande visited Monticello, the historic estate of Francophile and onetime envoy to France Thomas Jefferson — an act of bonhomie aimed at putting aside the political troubles dogging both men.
Hollande arrived in Washington on Monday without his recently estranged partner, Valérie Trierweiler, following a very public breakup over his tryst with actress Julie Gayet. The trip is being mobbed by French media outlets interested in how Hollande will manage the lavish trappings of a state visit without his significant other in tow.
Obama, meanwhile, is emphasizing commonality just days after a recording of one of his senior diplomats cursing the European Union was released. Also last week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry chastised French corporate titans for visiting Iran on business while work continues on a deal to curb the country’s nuclear activities.
“Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America,” Obama said after touring Monticello. “But as we see as we travel through his home, what he also represents is the incredible bond and the incredible gifts that France gave to the United States.”
Hollande said Jefferson “represents values and principles” shared by the two countries. “We were friends in the time of Jefferson and Lafayette, and we will remain friends forever,” he said.
This is the fifth full-fledged state visit under Obama, following South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit in 2011. A state dinner last year for Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, was canceled after disclosures about National Security Agency spying enraged the Brazilian public.
On Tuesday, Hollande and Obama are scheduled to hold a noon news conference at the White House, then visit Arlington National Cemetery to honor World War II veterans and attend a lavish state dinner.
By honoring Hollande with the first state visit by a European leader, Obama “may be sending a signal to an old ally on an old continent that there may be something to treating old friends as well as being too eager to make new ones,” Heather Conley, a senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an analysis Monday.
For much of the past decade, relations between France and the United States were tense, most notably after France refused to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq 11 years ago. The nation was generally a harsh critic of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
Both American officials and French diplomats say many of those divisions have since been closed because of Obama’s positive relationships with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and with Hollande, who has governed much in the mold of Obama despite an early socialist platform.
“Let’s just say that we’ve come a long way from ‘freedom fries,’ ” a senior Obama administration official said Monday, referring to the nickname many conservatives used for French fries a decade ago. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of the state visit.
Although long skeptical of the use of force by the United States, France has been relatively aggressive on Syria and has also led recent interventions in Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic. The U.S. military has played an important role in those actions as well.
American and French officials say they are essentially in agreement on what to do about the top two security challenges, Iran and Syria, and those topics will occupy much of the discussion between Obama and Hollande.
“We are aligned with the French both in our desire to see that the agreement to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons is completed, but also in terms of pressing for greater humanitarian access to support the people of Syria who have suffered so much in that conflict,” the senior administration official said.
One area of significant disagreement, however, is the extent of U.S. surveillance activity overseas, which has drawn swift rebuke across Europe. The senior administration official said Monday that he expected those disagreements to figure into the discussions with Hollande, but he also stressed that France is “an intelligence partner to the United States, particularly on counterterrorism efforts.”
Beyond security, officials said, other items on the agenda will include efforts to sign a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and spur on Europe’s economic recovery. “We will be looking to France for leadership on this issue,” said a second administration official.
Obama is expected to return to Europe in June, when Hollande has invited him to Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.