French leader opens unusual state visit to US

Celebrating the long-standing ties between their nations, President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande on Monday toured the sweeping Virginia estate owned by Thomas Jefferson, the former American president and famed Francophile. Obama's rare out-of-town trip with a foreign leader opened two days of events marking Hollande's state visit to the United States.

Standing together in Monticello's grand foyer, Obama said the elegant home represents "the incredible bond and the incredible gifts that France gave us."

The two leaders arrived in Charlottesville. Va., Monday afternoon after a short flight from Washington. Traveling together in Obama's armored limousine, the presidential motorcade then wound its way through the rolling hills toward the white and brick mansion, with its signature crowning dome.

As the two presidents — both wearing overcoats on a chilly February day — strolled along the estate's portico, Obama declared, "This is a wonderful visit."

For Hollande, the trip to Washington was a chance to get an ocean away from his romantic troubles. The French president is traveling in the U.S. without a female companion, following his very public split with longtime partner Valerie Trierweiler.

Their breakup has dominated headlines following a gossip magazine's revelations about a secret tryst with a French actress. The last-minute change of plans created a tricky situation for American officials planning a high-profile event where diplomatic protocol and etiquette are in the spotlight.

Still, Hollande was receiving a warm welcome reserved only for America's closest allies. He arrived in Washington Monday and was greeted by Obama at the nearby military base where dignitaries are received. The two leaders then boarded Air Force One for the trip to Virginia, using a smaller version of the presidential plane due to size restrictions at Charlottesville's airport.

The trip to Monticello was aimed at highlighting the deep ties between the U.S. and France. Jefferson, a Founding Father and former president, was also an early U.S. envoy to France and is honored with a statue on Paris' Seine River. Monday marked the first time a sitting president has visited Monticello with a current foreign head of state.

Obama and Hollande stood inside Jefferson's private suite, which included his bed chamber and the antique book-filled office he used for reading and writing. The two leaders then toured Monticello's kitchen, which was one of the best-equipped in Virginia during Jefferson's lifetime.

Following the tour, Obama said of Jefferson: "He was a Francophile through and through."

Hollande praised Jefferson's unique role in U.S. and French history and said of the two countries, "We will remain friends forever.

Obama also acknowledged that the house and its slave quarters represent "the complicated history of the United States."

"It's a reminder for both of us that we are going to continue to fight on behalf of the rights of all peoples, something I know France has always been committed to and we are committed to as well," Obama said.

Hollande is visiting Obama at a time of particularly strong relations between their nations. Their talks are expected to focus on areas where U.S.-French priorities are visibly in sync, such as in efforts to resolve nuclear concerns in Iran, a civil war in Syria and extremism in Africa. Mutual interests such as combating climate change and securing a trade deal between the U.S. and Europe will also be messages the two will seek to highlight.

"A decade ago, few would have imagined our two countries working so closely together in so many ways. But in recent years our alliance has transformed," Obama and Hollande wrote in a joint op-ed in the Washington Post and France's Le Monde. "We are sovereign and independent nations that make our decisions based on our respective national interests. Yet we have been able to take our alliance to a new level because our interests and values are so closely aligned."

The French opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Hollande's state visit continues into Tuesday, when he'll be greeted at the White House with trumpet fanfares and a 21-gun salute. Following his meetings with Obama, the leaders will hold a joint news conference, then don tuxedos for a state dinner feting Hollande.