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Obama toasts solo French president at state dinner

Wednesday, February 12, 2014
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President Barack Obama, left, listens to French President Francois Hollande, center, speak on stage during the State Dinner, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington
President Barack Obama, left, listens to French President Francois Hollande, center, speak on stage during the State Dinner, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington

— It was the talk of the town that no one seemed to want to talk about, French President Francois Hollande's very public breakup from his first lady just weeks before President Barack Obama raised a glass to him at an elegant White House state dinner.

"I don't get involved in those things," demurred actress Cicely Tyson, who, at age 80, said she's been to plenty such affairs.

But it was another kind of affair, "l'affaire Hollande," that Tyson and her fellow celebrities, Democratic donors, politicians and business types who made up the 350-person guest list Tuesday evening avoided mentioning.

The president and first lady Michelle Obama found just the right seat for the Frenchman who came to dinner without his "plus one." They seated him between them, and put the kibosh to all the drama about his stag visit to the U.S.

Former NAACP president Ben Jealous was nothing but admiring of the French intrigue.

"I think the French are way cooler than we are on a whole lot of fronts," he said, including "way better gossip."

On a frigid night, the evening's pomp and pageantry were designed to wrap Hollande in a comfy blanket of warmth, from the moment he stepped out of his limo and onto a red carpet on the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance to the White House. The Obamas greeted him on the front steps, the first lady clad in a black and liberty blue silk gown by Carolina Herrera.

The evening's celebrity quotient was impressive, including actors Bradley Cooper, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mindy Kaling and Tyson. Many wondered how Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert snagged a seat on the other side of the first lady.

And in a midterm election year and with a future presidential library to build, the Obamas invited more than two dozen donors to Obama's campaigns and the Democratic Party, including Irwin Jacobs, the Qualcomm Inc. founder who has given more than $2 million to pro-Obama super PACs, and Jane Stetson, the Democratic National Committee's finance chair.

Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson said his wife, Michelle Rhee, taught him a couple of French phrases on their way to the White House and declared he was "ready to bust 'em out." They included "bonsoir" and "bon appetit," he said playfully.

Bronx-born singer Mary J. Blige, the evening's sole entertainer, had to think for a second when asked whether she had a French connection. "Um, my last name is French," she said.

Obama, in his dinner toast, was deliberately sparing with his French.

He welcomed the guests with a hearty "bonsoir," then confessed that "I have now officially exhausted my French."

Hollande delivered a good portion of his reciprocal toast in respectable English before switching to French.

"We love Americans, although we don't always say so," he told the crowd.

Amidst all the pleasantries and tactful chitchat, there was the occasional moment of candor.

Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles, asked about her Kaufman Franco black dress with a leather bodice, told reporters, "I was hoping it wasn't too slutty."

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., drew a blank when reporters asked who designed her vibrant green dress. She called on her husband, Cass Sunstein, to check the label and dutifully reported it was Badgley Mischka.

Across the room from Hollande and Obama, veep and veep sat shoulder-to-shoulder: That would be Vice President Joe Biden and Louis-Dreyfus, who plays one on the HBO comedy series "Veep."

The White House did its straight-faced best to keep the attention on anything but Hollande's personal life, serving the four-course meal in a heated pavilion on the South Lawn that had patches of greenery and vines hanging from the ceiling like chandeliers. The White House itself doesn't have any rooms big enough for that many people. Guests arrived by rented trolley.

In the kind of awkward turn of events that give protocol officers ulcers, the White House last fall invited Hollande and his longtime girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, to come for a state visit, the first such honor for France in two decades. But just weeks ago, the two abruptly split after a tabloid caught a helmeted Hollande zipping via motorcycle to a liaison with French actress Julie Gayet.

Dinner celebrated American cuisine. The main course: dry-aged rib-eye beef from a family farm in Colorado, with Jasper Hill Farm blue cheese from Vermont.

For dessert, the pastry chefs used a paint sprayer to distribute a very thin layer of chocolate over a creamy ganache cake. Cotton candy dusted with orange zest was also part of the lineup.

 
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