WASHINGTON (AP) — Overshadowed by the intrigue of a European love triangle and a glamorous White House gala, Tuesday's policy talks between President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande will showcase a revamped relationship that is now a cornerstone of diplomatic efforts in Iran and Syria, as well as the fight against extremism in northern Africa.
The partnership between the longtime allies has slowly improved after hitting a low point a decade ago, when the French public and politicians alike bitterly opposed the U.S-led conflict in Iraq. Now, with Americans weary of war, it's France that has been staking out a more muscular military posture in parts of the world, with the White House gladly playing a supportive role.
"We're having a bit of a role reversal here," said Heather Conley, a Europe scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Indeed, France took the lead in recent military endeavors in Libya and Mali, while the U.S. contributed equipment and assistance with logistics and intelligence. And when the U.S. looked to be on the brink of a military strike against Syria following a chemical weapons attack there last year, France was the only European ally ready to join that effort.
Obama's critics have seized on this new dynamic as a sign of American weakness, while the White House has touted the approach as a strong model for a country with little appetite for protracted military conflicts.
Despite the array of pressing foreign policy concerns on tap for Tuesday's talks, much of the focus surrounding Hollande's state visit has been on the French leader's romantic woes. The 59-year-old ended his relationship last month with girlfriend and French first lady Valerie Trierweiler after it was revealed that he was having an affair with an actress. Hollande showed up in Washington Monday without a guest to accompany him during his two days of events.
The White House is carefully avoiding any mention of Hollande's personal drama and has moved forward with a grand welcome reserved only for America's closest allies. French and American flags dot Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House. And Hollande joined Obama on Air Force One Monday for a trip to Charlottesville, Va., where they toured the estate that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the former U.S. president who also served as a diplomat in France.
A military honor guard and 21-gun salute will greet Hollande when he arrives at the White House Tuesday for morning meetings with Obama in the Oval Office. The two leaders will then take questions from the U.S. and French press.
The centerpiece of Hollande's state visit will be a glitzy black-tie dinner held in his honor Tuesday night. The gala will be held in a massive white tent on the south lawn of the White House, where guests will feast on beef, greens from the White House garden and American caviar, while dancing to the music of singer Mary J. Blige.
Before donning their tuxedos, Obama and Hollande will discuss international nuclear negotiations with Iran. The U.S. and France, along with Britain, Germany, Russia and China, signed an interim agreement with Iran late last year that halts progress on the Islamic republic's nuclear program in exchange for easing international sanctions. Talks on a final deal begin next week in Vienna, Austria.
The Obama administration has been irked by the intense interest French businesses have taken in Iran since the sanctions were eased. More than 100 French executives visited Tehran last week, a trip Secretary of State John Kerry told his counterparts in Paris was "not helpful."
Obama and Hollande will also review international policy toward Syria, which has done little to jar Syrian President Bashar Assad from office or end the bloody civil war. An agreement to strip Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles is being carried out, though there are concerns on both sides of the Atlantic that Syria is stalling on its obligations. Peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition forces have gained no traction.
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