WASHINGTON – With flags unfurled on a brisk and breezy day on the White House South Lawn, President Barack Obama welcomed with full with military honors his French colleague President Francois Hollande Tuesday and emphasized the strong bond between the two countries.
“We trust each other in an unprecedented manner,” Hollande said on the first state visit by a French leader to the United States since 1996.
Both heads of state affirmed the friendship between their countries and vowedto continue cooperation despite some disagreements.
“We trust each other in an unprecedented manner,” Hollande said, as Obama highlighted four priority areas for the U.S.-France relationship – global security, trade, energy and climate change.
Neither Obama, nor Hollande made mention in their prepared statements of the National Security Agency’s surveillance techniques and other areas of discord.
Syria, Iran and Northern Africa
Obama and Hollande pledged to continue efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria. They will put more pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s regime and on Russia which has blocked United Nations resolutions in the Security Council.
The two countries are cooperating in diplomatic efforts dealing with Iran’s nuclear program too.
Obama won’t ask for new sanctions on Iran, he said, but will “fully enforce all applicable sanctions” while diplomats continue efforts for a long-term deal to eliminate the country’s nuclear capabilities.
“We will come down on them like a ton of bricks” if Iran walks away from a deal, Obama said, warning in such a scenario sanctions “will likely be tightened.”
Relationships with France have warmed over the last five years after friction during George W. Bush’s administration when France opposed the Iraq invasion. France has since become among U.S.’s closest allies in Europe. Last year, when the British government voted against an air strike on Syria, France backed the U.S. threat.
Asked by a French reporter whether the state visit – the first of Obama’s second term – means France has overtaken the United Kingdom as the top U.S. ally in Europe, Obama quipped that this was like choosing between his two gorgeous daughters.
Obama pledged logistical support for the French involvement in Mali and the Central African Republic. Mali has been struggling to recover its territorial integrity, while the Central African Republic faced a humanitarian disaster after Christian militias and Muslim Seleka rebels clashed.
A trade zone with the European Union
Obama reaffirmed his support for a free transatlantic trade zone between the U.S. and the European Union.
“That can mean jobs and growth in France; it can mean jobs and growth here in the United States.”
Negotiations on a free trade zone between the U.S. and the European Union have stagnated in recent years because of disagreements on several issues, including genetically modified food, subsidies for plane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus and a visa waiver program for all EU citizens.
“Speed is not of the essence … as long as principles have been set up,” Hollande said. “Of course, a speedy agreement would be a good thing.”
The presidents are expected to continue talks on smoothing issues.
France is a country with a large amount of foreign investments, Hollande said. A free trade zone can bring growth in small and medium-sized businesses on both continents, Obama said.
Hollande’s trip is the first French state visit, the highest form of diplomatic connection between two governments, since President Bill Clinton welcomed Jacques Chirac in 1996.
On Monday, the presidents boarded Air Force One for a pilgrimage to Thomas Jefferson’s historic Monticello home near Charlottesville. Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, was America’s ambassador to France during the French Revolution.
After a lavish welcome ceremony Tuesday morning on the White House South Lawn, the presidents honored veterans at the Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River in Virginia.
“It’s no exaggeration that we stand here because of each other,” Obama said honoring two American World War II veterans who fought at Normandy, France,
France will never forget American soldiers’ sacrifice to liberate Europe during the Second World War, Hollande said.
Rib-eye beef, American wine and a performance by Mary J. Blige are part of a lavish dinner program Tuesday evening with more than 300 guests.
Hollande arrived in Washington solo. Last month, his long-term partner, Valerie Trierweiler, left after paparazzi caught the president leaving the home of a young actress.