By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There were no "freedom fries" or any other remembrances from strained Franco-American ties in the past. Instead, it was dry-aged beef and plenty of "bonhomie" as President Barack Obama gave a lavish welcome to French President Francois Hollande.
Obama went out of his way to welcome Hollande at the White House on Tuesday, saying a few words in passable French, teasing the Frenchman for his formality and toying with the notion that U.S. ties with France are as close as they are with old ally Britain.
"It is always a pleasure to host Francois," Obama said at a joint news conference after wishing reporters good afternoon in French.
At a G8 summit at Camp David two years ago, Obama noted with a smile, "I was trying to make the summit casual, and Francois in true French style showed up in a necktie. We tried to get him to take it off."
Hollande was equally effusive, referring to "Mr. President, dear Barack."
The chumminess was not unexpected coming from two leaders who tend to see issues from the same leftward view. Obama went so far as to say that the U.S.-French alliance dating back more than two centuries "has never been stronger."
Still, it was a noted difference from a decade ago when the Iraq war strained relations between the two countries, a time when "freedom fries" replaced French fries as a popular side dish in some American eateries.
"Let's just say that we've come a long way from 'freedom fries,'" said a senior Obama administration official.
Indeed, the menu for the state dinner featuring 350 guests in a heated tent on the White House South Lawn later on Tuesday included dry-aged rib eye beef and American wines.
During his toast before the meal, Hollande joked about the two countries' affection for each other.
"We love Americans, although we don't always say so. And you love the French, but you're sometimes too shy to say so," he quipped.
Obama lavished some praise on a favorite French import.
"Now, it is true that we Americans have grown to love all things French - the films, the food, the wine. Especially the wine," he said in his toast.
ALL ALONE AND VEEP MEETS VEEP
That Hollande showed up "tout seul," or all alone, was not talked about publicly.
Hollande, 59, split with long-time partner Valerie Trierweiler last month after he was photographed on a motor scooter outside the Paris apartment of actress Julie Gayet, 41.
Hollande's personal drama briefly caused some confusion at the White House. Would he bring Gayet to the Tuesday night state dinner? But all this was quickly moot when the French delegation list sent to the White House showed that Hollande would be stag.
His singleness seemed to affect Michelle Obama more than anyone else. Before the dinner the U.S. first lady, wearing a flowing blue dress, came down the grand stair case at the White House by herself, behind her husband and the French president, who walked together.
Business leaders, administration officials, and Hollywood stars were among the guests at the event, which was held in a lavish tent on the White House grounds.
Vice President Joe Biden was seated next to actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays a U.S. vice president in the HBO television series "Veep."
The real veep was overheard telling the TV show veep that he had requested that they be seated next to each other.
"Look who I'm sitting next to," Louis-Dreyfus told nearby reporters. "That's my favorite part of the dinner right there."
The fact that Hollande was granted the privilege of making the first state visit to the White House of Obama's second term was not lost on French reporters, who asked at the press conference whether this was a sign that France was supplanting traditional U.S. ally Britain.
Obama's answer represented a delicate diplomatic dance.
"I have two daughters," he said. "And they are both gorgeous and wonderful. And I would never choose between them. And that's how I feel about my outstanding European partners. All of them are wonderful in their own ways."
Hollande could not resist the urge to join this line of conversation when it was his turn to speak.
"Well, "I have four children," he said. "So that makes it even more difficult for me to make any choice at all. But we're not trying to be anyone's favorite."
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Eric Walsh)
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