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Sans first lady, French leader to US on business

Monday - 2/10/2014, 12:00pm  ET

SYLVIE CORBET
Associated Press

PARIS (AP) -- France's suddenly single president arrives Monday in the U.S. for a state visit, hoping the glaring absence of his first lady won't steal the limelight from his focus on major policy issues with President Barack Obama.

Francois Hollande, a bespectacled 59-year-old former Socialist party boss, will be highlighting France's shared interests with Washington on issues like Syria's civil war, Iran's nuclear program and terrorism in Africa.

First, he may need to get past the snickers: Hollande drew headlines and ridicule worldwide last month after a gossip magazine reported that he had zipped through Paris in a face-covering helmet on a motor scooter for a tryst with French actress Julie Gayet -- unbeknownst to his first lady.

He has since split with Valerie Trierweiler, his partner of several years, who won't be at the state dinner. She's now reportedly vacationing on a balmy Indian Ocean island. The French have largely shrugged off the reported affair as a private matter, even if they too have devoured the story on the airwaves and in print.

But Hollande's political headaches are worse. Polls suggest his popularity is at historic lows. One last week found that fewer than one in five French trust his leadership. His 20-month mantra about job-creation and economic growth has produced few results.

The embattled Socialist leader will be able to bask in some symbolic glow: Obama is still widely liked in France, and Hollande will get the grand reception reserved for America's closest allies.

He and Obama will hold a news conference on Tuesday, and visit Arlington National Cemetery -- in this 70th-anniversary year of the Allied landings in Normandy during World War II.

The state dinner will hardly be Obama's first with a dose of drama. One in 2009 was marred by a pair of party crashers. Another was canceled last year when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff scrapped her trip to Washington to protest the National Security Agency spying.

France may be America's oldest ally, but the relationship has grown complex (remember "Freedom Fries"?). France, a nuclear-armed power with a U.N. Security Council veto, has recently had stronger U.S. ties on defense and diplomacy than on economic and national-security issues.

Hollande showed early pique about spying revelations from Edward Snowden, though he has not dwelled on the controversy. His government wants uniform taxation on Internet companies -- many U.S.-based -- that skirt high European taxes in places like France, and insists a U.S.-European trade deal in the works must help protect French cultural offerings from Hollywood's behemoth.

Overall, ties are good.

"A decade ago, few would have imagined our two countries working so closely together in so many ways. But in recent years our alliance has transformed," Obama and Hollande wrote in a joint column published Monday in the Washington Post and Le Monde, apparently alluding to trans-Atlantic tensions over the Iraq war.

The two leaders noted that now, after France's return to NATO's military command in 2009, "we have been able to take our alliance to a new level because our interests and values are so closely aligned."

With the United States focusing on pulling combat forces from Afghanistan, a message from France will be: We got your back, such as in Africa -- where French troops took the lead in fighting jihadists in Mali and are trying with African partners to end Muslim-Christian violence in Central African Republic. The U.S. has provided airlift, intelligence and other support.

Despite minor disagreements, France is mostly shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. in diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and ending Syria's three-year civil war.

Analyst Laurence Nardon said France felt "quite hurt" when it backed the prospect of U.S.-led air strikes in Syria in September, only to see Obama shelve the idea.

"Now the line from Hollande is going to be: France is doubtlessly the most active ally of the United States these days to try to maintain stability in the world," said Nardon, head of the U.S. program at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. "I think he's going to talk a lot about that -- with the implication of: 'Isn't it about time that you recognize that France is your No. 1 ally right now?'"

Since taking office, Hollande's priority has been to right France's listing economy. He'll look to hold up free-market America as an example of economic recovery, to counter a grumbling leftist political base irked with his business-friendly overtures. Certainly the two countries' unemployment rates are starkly different, with the U.S. reporting 6.6 percent and France staying above 10 percent for two years.

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