Monsieur Hollande Comes To Dinner

Last week, President Hollande of France was the guest of honor at a rare White House state dinner. He was greeted with all the pomp and circumstance due to a world leader. To be sure there were no rows of servants lined up in front of the White House like in Downton Abbey, but the Marines provided the necessary panache and the First Couple  stood at the South Entrance in all their finery. Michelle was resplendent in a lacy top and an ample skirt, somewhat reminiscent of a Velasquez painting.

Later the guests made their entrance into a hall packed with press photographers. Some stopped briefly smiling for a picture. Their outfits were elegant but rather sedate with none of the glitz and glamor of a Hollywood affair. They disappeared into the next room to the sound of Bach. Perhaps Handel, who wrote a lot of ceremonial music for the King of England, would have been more fitting than Bach’s churchy strains.

The dinner itself was held in the South Lawn Pavilion in a giant tent specially decorated for the event. It seems that the White House does not have a room large enough to accommodate 350 guests. In many of the French chateaux, there are probably halls in which 350 people would only occupy a small corner of the room.  It was said that President’s Obama’s arrival was slightly delayed due to a button popping out of his shirt. Did he have to change shirts or did someone sew the button back on? Or do we do this kind of thing anymore?

There were, of course, the required speeches. President Obama exhausted his knowledge of French after he said “Bonsoir.” He then cited passages from Alexis de Tocqueville’s account of his travels in America. De Tocqueville described the President as having no power and of  inhabiting what in France would be a fine private residence. He also marveled at the multitude of things the
Americans managed to introduce into their stomachs.

President Obama (in a show of camaraderie?) addressed President Hollande as Francois which is very un-French and somewhat jarring in a formal ambiance.

Hollande started his speech in very good English then switched to French. At the end of Hollande’s speech there was a “Vive la France” and Obama’s ended with “God bless America”. There you have the difference between a secular state and a nation under God.

Hollande, who is at the bottom of his popularity at home,  certainly needed to burnish his escutcheon. As for Barrack Obama, now that his relationship with Europe is suffering from Edward Snowden’s malevolent revelations, he could certainly benefit from the embrace of a friendly European.

A cartoon in the French press shows Hollande and Obama ice dancing. Are they practicing their side-by-side twizzles?


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  1. Simone, were you disappointed in the “presentation” of the dinner? It seems to me that President and Mrs. Obama can be so elegant, yet down to earth. Were they too informal?
    I remember when Michelle Obama touched Queen Elizabeth’s shoulder, and there was such a fuss in the press about it! Yet, I thought it was very dear, somehow; almost a protective touch.

    Maybe we Americans are just not that good at being formal!

    What do you think?

  2. I think that the essence of politeness is to adapt your behavior to the customs of your guests and the French are the essence of formality and never call other by their first name. But apart from that I think it all went very well and there were no serious faux pas.

  3. The French have a saying for when they think someone is too familiar. It goes: “As far as I know we never kept pigs together”.

  4. Lovely description, but what do you make of his lack of a lady on the arm of monsieur Hollande? Do you think it was handled appropriately? What is it with French presidents and their mistresses anyways? Is that accepted French custom?

  5. The best way to handle anything awkward like the lack of a companion is to totally ignore it. It never happened! As for the presidents and their love affairs it seems to have become commonplace hasn’t it? Mitterand, Chirac, Sarkozy etc. The only one above reproach, I think, is De Gaulle.

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