The commander in chief pulled out all the stops for French President François Hollande’s visit: state dinner; visit to Monticello; mentions of Lafayette, L’Enfant, de Tocqueville, the Statue of Liberty, D-Day and the French Quarter in New Orleans; as well as mushy talk about our "oldest ally" and the "incredible bond" with France. He gushed about happy times at Camp David and in Chicago with "François," so much so that a French reporter (from Figaro!) asked Obama if his eye had wandered from the "special relationship" with France’s rival.
"You have praised France very warmly today and granted our president the first state visit of your second term," she observed at a midday news conference Tuesday. "Does that mean that France has become the best European ally of the U.S. and has replaced Great Britain?"
"Oh, goodness," replied Obama, caught in flagrante delicto. He asserted that his attraction to France was platonic, even paternal.
"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."
The French will probably be tolerant of Obama’s multiple partners. The French public has not been shaken by news that Hollande’s longtime partner recently left him after reports of his affair with an actress. (Neither woman accompanied him on the trip.
Obama’s dalliance with the French is a predictable response to domestic troubles. With his agenda stalled on Capitol Hill, he is following the oft-traveled path of emphasizing foreign affairs in his second term. Even overseas, there aren’t many friendly options: Relations are tense with China and sour with Russia, Syria is a nightmare, Iraq is a mess, and there are but flickers of hope in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. The National Security Agency spying controversy has hurt ties with Germany and caused Brazil’s president to cancel her state visit.
But, vive la France!
Eighty-three percent of the French have confidence in Obama, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last year. That makes Obama considerably more popular in France than he is in the United States. It also makes Obama more popular in France than Hollande, who commands the support of only about one in five of his countrymen.
Obama could only look good by comparison. The U.S. president is often accused of being a socialist and presiding over a weak economy. But Hollande actually is a socialist presiding over an economy with a double-digit unemployment rate. Even the physical juxtaposition worked in Obama’s favor; he’s a head taller than the pudgy and bespectacled Frenchman.
Hollande, for his part, seemed delighted to bask in Obama’s relative popularity. He praised Obama’s stand on climate change and lavishly hailed his "example" on economic policy. "America experiences recovery in its growth due to the policy and the political choices made," he said through an interpreter.
One of the French questioners made the contrast even worse for Hollande by ridiculing his plans to meet with U.S. business leaders. "For them, you are a socialist," the reporter said. "You tax wealth at 75 percent."
Obama gave himself credit for "some well-timed policies" on the economy but said his friend François had a different set of problems.
NPR’s Scott Horsley briefly pulled Obama back into his messy domestic situation, inquiring about the latest Obamacare delay. But through the visit, Obama otherwise succeeded in keeping things in the happier realm of foreign affairs. Hollande chatted privately with his friend in passable English; Obama reciprocated by greeting Hollande with a "bonjour" that was, Obama said, "the extent of my French." Based on his struggle to pronounce "liberté, egalité, fraternité," this was true.
Gone was the "freedom fries" unpleasantness of a decade ago when the two countries split over Iraq; instead, the state dinner menu included Illinois caviar, vegetables from the first lady’s garden, Colorado beef and Pennsylvania quail eggs.
"There are so many subjects I could mention," a grateful Hollande said in the news conference, "and every single time I would mention one of those issues, I would have to bear witness of the quality of our relations and of our trust."
It was the sort of love Obama doesn’t get much at home anymore.
Twitter: @Milbank Washington Post Writers Group.