The French president’s burgeoning sex scandal is emerging as a diplomatic headache for the White House amid uncertainty as to whom exactly François Hollande plans to bring to next month’s state dinner.
Hollande confessed Tuesday to French and foreign reporters in Paris that he is facing “struggles” in his relationship with his partner, former political reporter Valérie Trierweiler. This admission comes in the wake of reports that he is involved with the 41-year-old French actress Julie Gayet.
“Everyone, in their personal lives, can face struggles,” Hollande said. “That’s our case. These are painful times.”
Trierweiler was reportedly hospitalized for shock and exhaustion over the weekend after the affair became public. The affair is dominating international coverage of Hollande’s presidency, with about 600 French and foreign reporters showing up at the third press conference of his 18-month presidency.
Hollande’s predicament has set tongues wagging around Washington ahead of next month’s visit.
“Quel dommage,” quipped Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs panel and a longtime Francophile. “What a problem to have.”
But it poses some serious protocol questions about who Hollande can actually bring as a guest — and how they’ll be received. When the White House announced the invitation last month, it was addressed to “President Hollande and Valérie Trierweiler.”
The White House referred questions to the French government.
“There are no changes,” spokesman Jay Carney said. “The president looks forward to seeing President Hollande for the state visit in February. On issues of the delegation that the French come with, I would refer you to the French government.”
The French embassy in Washington made clear that it is as much in the dark about Hollande’s guest list as everyone else.
“We don’t know that because it’s still quite a few weeks away,” an embassy spokeswoman told The Hill. “We’ll see if there’s a change when the president decides to talk about the subject.”
Connolly said America’s “deep puritanical tradition” would have made it impossible for a world leader to bring someone other than their formal spouse just two decades ago.
“If you’d asked me this question not so long ago, my answer would have been definitive: Unacceptable. No way. No president could receive him under those circumstances,” Connolly said. “He would not be welcome and the [U.S.] president would get in trouble.”
“That’s not true anymore,” he said.
Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush, said it would be a breeze for the White House social office to quickly make adjustments if Hollande’s delegation changes.
“They don’t need any notice at all,” she told The Hill.
“This is a highly orchestrated, scripted event and it’s easy to change if it’s just one person.”
McBride recalled when the Bushes held a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II and Laura Bush held open a spot for the winning jockey of the Kentucky Derby, which was the Saturday before Monday night’s event.
She noted that the White House social secretary helped jockey Calvin Borel secure a tux and his fiancée Lisa Funk get a dress for the dinner.
“People in the White House social office are experts at rolling with the punches,” said McBride, who’s now at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “These issues are not issues.”
Visiting foreign leaders are traditionally seated at the first lady’s table for State dinners, while their spouse sits next to the president. That would leave an empty chair next to Obama if Hollande comes alone, but McBride said there’s easy ways around that.
“They probably have a Plan B in place,” she said. “They would put someone else at the president’s table.”
Hollande is hardly the first French leader to have an affair, and the French public has historically respected its leaders’ requests that their private lives remain private.
Hollande’s sex scandal, however, comes as the French leader is already reeling from record low poll numbers and follows his well-publicized 2007 separation from fellow Socialist Party heavyweight Ségolène Royal, with whom he has four children.
Connolly and McBride agreed that the best course of action at this point is for Hollande to come alone.
Otherwise, his personal life is all but certain to overshadow a trip on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion that’s supposed to focus on policy matters, such as the ongoing U.S.-European Union trade talks and counterterrorism in Africa.
“I sense a cold might strike a companion or two,” Connolly said. “Just a thought.”