published Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

White House state dinner for President Francois has French twist

  • photo
    First lady Michelle Obama, left, and President Barack Obama welcome French President François Hollande for a State Dinner at the North Portico of the White House on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Washington.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — Michelle and Barack Obama found just the right spot to seat a gent going stag to Tuesday's state dinner: They plopped French President Francois Hollande down right between them, and put the pshaw to all that drama about his solo trip to the U.S. after a very public breakup from his first lady.

The A-list guest roster for the biggest social event of Obama's second term — flush with celebrities, Democratic donors, politicians and business types — mostly tried not to go there, tactfully avoiding talk about "l'affaire Hollande."

"I don't get involved in those things," demurred actress Cicely Tyson, who at age 80 said she's been to plenty of state dinners over the years.

The NAACP's 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 all 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 White House north portico. The Obamas were there on the front steps to greet the French president, the first lady clad in a black and liberty blue silk gown by Carolina Herrera.

Among the guests, one of the most frequent phrases of the night was "un peu." As in, nope, don't speak much French.

A few brave souls ventured out of their comfort zones to try a word or two.

"Oui, oui, oui," declared the Rev. Al Sharpton, sounding like he was reciting the nursery rhyme about the little piggies.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson proudly announced that wife Michelle Rhee had taught him two French phrases "and I'm ready to bust 'em out."

Here goes: "bonsoir" and "bon appetit."

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

Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles, asked about her dress, told reporters, "I was hoping it wasn't too slutty."

The White House did its straight-faced best to keep the attention on anything but Hollande's personal life, preparing an outsized dinner-for-350 in a giant party tent on the South Lawn. (There's no room inside the White House that can handle that many guests.)

The celebrity quotient on the guest list was impressive, including actors Bradley Cooper, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mindy Kaling and Tyson. There were plenty of politicians, per usual. And in a midterm election year, the Obamas invited in more than two dozen donors to Obama's campaigns and the Democratic Party. Among them were 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.

In the kind of awkward timing that gives 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 then just weeks ago, the two abruptly split after a tabloid caught a helmeted Hollande zipping via motorcycle to a liaison with actress Julie Gayet.

Questions immediately began to swirl about who might accompany Hollande — old girlfriend? new girlfriend? — but the 59-year-old leader ultimately decided to come stag, forcing the White House social team to make behind-the-scenes adjustments after months of choreography and planning.

Lost in all the speculation: Hollande is far from the first world leader to sup at the White House sans companion.

China's Hu Jintao didn't bring his wife to a state dinner in 2011. Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, soloed at an official White House dinner in November 2007, a month after divorcing his wife.

The White House tapped into social media to gin up excitement for the French visit.

Michelle Obama's team tweeted a photo of pickled vegetables from the White House kitchen garden to be used in the four-course dinner celebrating American cuisine, and a YouTube video shows the kitchen team at work. The main course: dry-aged rib eye beef from a family farm in Colorado, with Jasper Hill Farm blue cheese from Vermont.

The mansion's chefs temporarily took over the White House Instagram account this week to document dinner prep. One behind-the-scenes revelation: They used a paint sprayer to distribute a micro-thin layer of chocolate over the creamy ganache cake on the dessert menu. Also part of the dessert lineup: cotton candy dusted with orange zest.

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