WASHINGTON (AP) - Lauding the "enduring alliance" between the United States and France, President Barack Obama on Tuesday welcomed President Francois Hollande to the White House for a lavish state visit. The highly anticipated trip is taking place amid swirling speculation on both sides of the Atlantic about problems in Hollande's personal life.
On a cold February morning, Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and a military honor guard welcomed Hollande as he arrived on the South Lawn of the White House. The two leaders shook hands before a cheering crowd, many waving American and French flags, and greeted two American military veterans who served in France during World War II.
Obama and Hollande both highlighted the long-standing ties between their nations and the key role they have played in shaping their respective histories.
"We stand here because of each other," Obama said. "We owe our freedom to each other."
Hollande, alternating between French and English, echoed those comments, saying "Each of our countries knows what it owes to each other - its freedom."
Following the arrival ceremony, Obama and Hollande headed to the Oval Office for policy meetings on Iran, Syria and rising extremism in Northern Africa. Later Tuesday, the Obamas will fete Hollande at a grand state dinner attended by more than 300 dignitaries and celebrities.
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 without a guest to accompany him during his two days of events.
The White House has carefully avoided any mention of Hollande's personal drama and has moved forward with a grand welcome reserved only for America's closest allies. Obama warmly referred to Hollande as a friend during the welcome ceremony and the two leaders traded jokes about the chilly temperatures in the nation's capital.
"Few places warm the heart like Paris in the spring," Obama said. "Today we're going to do our best with Washington in the winter."
Following their policy discussions Tuesday, Obama and Hollande will hold a news conference with U.S. and French reporters. The leaders will seek to project a renewed relationship between their countries after hitting a low point more than a decade ago over France's staunch opposition to the American-led war in Iraq.
In something of a role reversal, it's now France that has staked out a more muscular military posture, with the White House gladly playing a supportive role. 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.
High on the agenda for Tuesday's talks with be 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 shown 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.
White House officials said the two leaders would also discuss the global economy and climate change.
Hollande arrived in Washington on Monday and joined Obama for a trip to Monticello, the Virginia estate owned by Thomas Jefferson. The former American president also served as a diplomat to France and the White House cast the visit as a symbol of the two nations' shared history.