Barack and Francois take center stage at White House

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 11, 2014 4:41pm EST

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and French President Francois Hollande address a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, February 11, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and French President Francois Hollande address a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, February 11, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Gary Cameron

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There were no "freedom fries" or any other remembrances from strained Franco-American ties in the past. Instead, it was dry-aged beef and plenty of bonhomie as President Barack Obama gave a lavish welcome to French President Francois Hollande.

Obama went out of his way to welcome Hollande at the White House on Tuesday, saying a few words in passable French, teasing the Frenchman for his formality and toying with the notion that U.S. ties with France are as close as they are with old ally Britain.

"It is always a pleasure to host Francois," Obama said at a joint news conference after wishing reporters a "bon apres-midi," which is French for good afternoon.

At a G8 summit at Camp David two years ago, Obama noted with a smile, "I was trying to make the summit casual, and Francois in true French style showed up in a necktie. We tried to get him to take it off."

Hollande was equally effusive, referring to "Mr. President, dear Barack."

The chumminess was not unexpected coming from two leaders who tend to see issues from the same leftward view. Obama went so far as to say that the U.S.-French alliance dating back more than two centuries, "has never been stronger."

Still, it was a noted difference from a decade ago when the Iraq war strained relations between the two countries, a time when "freedom fries" replaced French fries as a popular side dish in some American eateries.

"Let's just say that we've come a long way from 'freedom fries,'" said a senior Obama administration official.

Indeed, the menu for the state dinner featuring 350 guests in a heated tent on the White House South Lawn later on Tuesday will include dry-aged rib eye beef and American wines.

That Hollande showed up "tout seul," or all alone, was not talked about publicly.

Hollande, 59, split with long-time partner Valerie Trierweiler last month after he was photographed on a motor scooter outside the Paris apartment of actress Julie Gayet, 41.

Hollande's personal drama briefly caused some confusion at the White House. Would he bring Gayet to the Tuesday night state dinner? But all this was quickly moot when the French delegation list sent to the White House showed that Hollande would be stag.

The fact that Hollande was granted the privilege of making the first state visit to the White House of Obama's second term was not lost on French reporters, who asked whether this was a sign that France was supplanting traditional U.S. ally Britain.

Obama's answer represented a delicate diplomatic dance.

"I have two daughters," he said. "And they are both gorgeous and wonderful. And I would never choose between them. And that's how I feel about my outstanding European partners. All of them are wonderful in their own ways."

Hollande could not resist the urge to join this line of conversation when it was his turn to speak.

"Well, "I have four children," he said. "So that makes it even more difficult for me to make any choice at all. But we're not trying to be anyone's favorite."

(Editing by Andre Grenon)

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