On Thursday night, the youngest-ever French president and the oldest-ever American president toasted each other during the White House’s first state dinner in more than three years, since before the pandemic swept away millions of lives and froze Washington’s fancy rituals. Emmanuel Macron, three weeks from turning 45, raised a slender crystal Baccarat flute of California brut rosé to President Biden, freshly 80, whose vessel reportedly contained the divine elixir of the teetotaler: ginger ale.
“To the history that binds and the values that still unite us,” Biden said on a dais in a monumental pavilion built for the occasion out of vinyl, glass and wood on the South Lawn.
“Long live the United States of America, long live France and long live the friendship between our two countries,” Macron said in French, backdropped by an image of the Statue of Liberty, that copper colossus from France. He finished in English: “Cheers. Thank you.” Biden then asked if he could introduce Macron to his sister, Valerie Biden Owens. “I follow you,” Macron said, as the pair weaved past candelabras dripping crimson wax.
The dinner, featuring a performance by virtuosic bandleader Jon Batiste, was the fizzy climax of this week’s state visit, during which Macron and Biden grasped for new ways to describe their mutual affection and vilify their common foe, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The dinner was a nostalgic mingling of boldfaced names from politics, business, Hollywood and fashion. Singer John Legend and Chrissy Teigen were seated with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hugged Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
Guests were ferried by heated tour-bus trolley from the White House to the pavilion, where 33 rectangular dining tables were dappled with the nations’ shared colors: blue delphiniums, white irises and American Beauty roses. The gold-thatched plateware was rented (can’t risk the good china with a tipsy Cabinet). The tablecloths were navy. The chandeliers above, flickering with artificial candles, were medieval in their circularity. The visual vibe was “Beauty and the Beast” meets “Game of Thrones.”
The calotte of beef was served with shallot marmalade. The butter potatoes were triple-cooked. There was ravioli with squash from the White House garden and caviar from white California sturgeon. Dessert was orange chiffon cake with tangerine mousse, roasted pears and creme fraiche ice cream. The wines and cheeses were American: cheddar from Sheboygan, Wis., and chardonnay and cabernet from the valleys of Napa and Knights. (Let’s pause to recall the 1996 state dinner for France, which the Bidens attended as guests of the Clintons, and the French ambassador’s impromptu appraisal of the wine pairings. “The wines?” said François Bujon de l’Estang, his face torn between truth and diplomacy. “Very good American wines.”)
The Maine lobsters were flown in, alive and scuttling, Tuesday morning. They were poached in butter, and controversy. Within the past month, two seafood guides have urged consumers to avoid eating American lobster caught in the Atlantic. The Marine Stewardship Council announced Wednesday that the lobster is no longer considered sustainable because the fishing gear is snarling an endangered species of whale. Meanwhile, Maine congressman Jared Golden (a Democrat) argued on behalf of the humans involved.
“If the Biden White House can prioritize purchasing 200 Maine lobsters for a fancy dinner,” Golden tweeted, the president “should also take the time to meet with the Maine lobstermen his administration is currently regulating out of business.”
Of the past 10 state dinners at the White House, three have honored France. Macron is only the third French head of state, after Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac, to be invited a second time. With Angela Merkel gone, and the United Kingdom running through prime ministers like Kleenex, Macron looks like the de facto leader of Europe.
“If you look at what’s going on in Ukraine, look at what’s going on in the Indo-Pacific and the tensions with China, France is really at the center of all those things,” said national security official John Kirby this week. “And President Macron has been a dynamic leader inside the G-7, particularly there in Europe.”
Or, as Biden said when asked why he invited Macron: “Because he is my friend.”
When Macron was born, in December 1977, Biden was in his first term in the Senate. Over this week’s visit, the Gen-Xer was affectionate with his elder. “Cher Joe,” Macron called him, routinely placing his hand on Biden’s shoulder, or in the small of his back. “We are friends,” Brigitte Macron said about Jill Biden, grabbing her hand during a visit to the Planet Word museum Thursday morning. “We are friends,” the first lady affirmed, and Brigitte repeated it, because these rituals are about repetition: “We are friends.”
Wednesday evening the Bidens and Macrons dined privately at Fiola Mare in Georgetown. In public there were the usual invocations of George Washington’s bon ami, the Marquis de Lafayette, whom Biden referred to — during his welcome address on the South Lawn — as “Marcus.” This was shortly after Biden referred, at 9:34 a.m., to “this December night.”
The presidents tried to find modern ways to describe the antique alliance of their nations.
“Locked at the hip,” Biden said Thursday morning in the Oval Office.
“We’re in synchronization,” Macron offered, on the other side of the crackling fireplace.
Macron bore gifts. He gave President Biden a vinyl copy of the soundtrack to “Un Homme et une Femme,” the 1966 film viewed by Joe and Jill on their first date, in 1975. Macron gave Jill Biden a copy of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and an anthology of Albert Camus that includes “The Plague.” Macron gave Vice President Harris a model of the Ariane 5 transport rocket; the pair visited NASA headquarters Wednesday to talk about space as place for opportunity and “conflictuality,” as the French president put it.
State dinners with our oldest ally have always featured sweet bonhomie dolloped with prickliness. Before a 1960 dinner Dwight D. Eisenhower praised de Gaulle as “a great friend to all of those who love human dignity,” even as France suspected the United States of undermining its interests in Africa. In 1984, Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand complained about each other’s agriculture policies and then dined together on veal tenderloin en croute (quipped guest Julia Child: “I don’t think the main course was a success”). In 2007, George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy tried to finally move past a frosty, freedom-fries feud with a stuffy after-dinner reenactment of Washington’s meeting with Lafayette.
This time around, le brouhaha was the potential impact of a signature Biden legislative achievement, the Inflation Reduction Act, on European trade. Something about tax credits and subsidies and semiconductors, you see, and a potential trade imbalance. At the French Embassy on Wednesday, Macron worried aloud that transcontinental economic fallout from the bill would “fragment the West,” according to Fox News. At a news conference Thursday afternoon with Biden, the U.S. president acknowledged there were “glitches” in the act that could be resolved.
Speaking of inflation: Biden’s guest list included a whopping 339 people. Richard M. Nixon’s 1970 state dinner for Georges Pompidou was 110 people. Herbert Hoover’s 1931 dinner for Pierre Laval was 85 (all men, accompanied only by cigars).
Showbiz guests on Thursday’s list: actors Ariana DeBose and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, late-night host Stephen Colbert, actor Jennifer Garner and her daughter Violet Affleck (one of the few attendees to wear a mask), film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and 85-year-old Claude Lelouch (director of the film viewed on Joe and Jill’s first date).
Politicians in attendance: a slew of senators, some deputy assistants of whichever, and the secretaries of treasury, labor, commerce and agriculture.
“Great. And happy. And relieved,” said Pelosi when asked how she felt about the newly elected Democratic leadership in the House. Her daughter Alexandra followed up with: “Free at last.”
“You’re gonna be at a dinner with Hunter Biden tonight,” Reuters reporter Jeff Mason said to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as he entered the White House. “How does that feel, knowing that many people in your caucus want to investigate him?”
“I’m at dinner with my mom,” McCarthy replied, mom on his arm, “so we’re going to have a great time.”
The presidents entered the pavilion at a decidedly European hour for dinner: around 9:43 p.m.
“I actually grew up in a place called New Castle, Delaware County, near Brandywine Battlefield,” Biden said then, “where a young man named Marquis de Lafayette” — pronunciation correct this time — “fought for the American cause and became close friends with a fellow named George Washington.”
Macron likened Lafayette’s contribution to the American Revolution to those of U.S. service members storming the beaches of Normandy — gambits to achieve, maintain or restore liberty.
“In a lot of places today, those principles are at risk,” Macron said, but “we stand together, shoulder to shoulder.”