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Sunday, February 9, 2014 - 8:56pm
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When French President Francois Hollande flies to Washington this week for a state visit, he will bring a lot of baggage -- and it's not his country's famous Louis Vuitton.
Hollande leaves France amid sinking popularity ratings and swirling reports that he cheated on his partner of seven years with a younger movie actress. The former French first lady Valerie Trierweiler -- whom Obama said in November he was looking forward to hosting -- will not come to the White House now that Hollande has announced their split.
France's President says his private life is private, but he's not denying the affair. Now he will come to America solo for one of Washington's most tradition-bound events, where protocol dictates nearly everything and a slip-up could wind up offending a top ally.
"The protocol that dictates how state visits are handled is something that's steeped in hundreds of years of history," said Anita McBride, a former chief of staff to Laura Bush who helped plan state dinners.
It's not the first time a French president has come to Washington alone. Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, attended a formal dinner at the White House shortly after announcing his split from his wife, Carla Bruni. And at least Hollande is showing up; when Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff caught wind of National Security Agency spying, she canceled altogether.
But questions such as who will sit next to Obama are still up in the air. Typically the partner of the visiting head of state gets the chair next to America's president. When that position is vacant, U.S. officials must consult their counterparts and even have the president himself weigh in.
It's not necessarily a hard task, said McBride, because plenty of people would jump at the chance to sit next to Obama. The designee doesn't have to be French, though it wouldn't be unexpected if he or she is.
It's just another piece of planning that requires painstaking attention to detail.
"The White House is a place where they can adapt to changes quickly, and you're always nimble and always flexible. And you always are careful in issues of protocol," she said.
It may seem antiquated to treat a guest so gingerly, but state dinners have always been about formality and gentle manners. They've grown so much that they no longer fit in the State Dining Room. Instead a sturdy white tent on the South Lawn holds the hundreds of invited guests, who usually include some top donors and key allies in Congress.
It's a much-sought-after invitation -- so much so that a Virginia couple faked one to attend Obama's event honoring the Indian prime minister, Monmohan Singh, in 2009. Michaele Salahi's red-and-gold sari is likely forever imprinted in the mind of Desiree Rogers, the former White House social secretary who stepped down shortly after the incident.
That kind of glaring fissure in the evening's decorum isn't typical, said McBride, who did recall an incident during a visit by the Chinese premier she said was marred when a journalist shouted a question at the formal arrival ceremony.
And while the details still matter for staunch allies like France, Obama isn't likely to face any major shocks when it comes to the policy matters at hand.
France, to the Obama administration's pleasure, has taken a more interventionist stance in global conflicts. It's a far cry from a decade ago, when the country's opposition to invading Iraq prompted the emergence of "Freedom fries."
In Libya France took a leading role in the mission that ended with Moammar Gadhafi's death. And in Mali, French troops are working to prevent Islamists from taking over in the northern part of the country.
France was ready in September to launch air strikes in Syria as Obama was trying to rally support, making the country one of a few foreign allies to back the U.S. plan after Britain's parliament voted against it. Obama eventually went to Congress for approval, but the issue never came to a vote.
While Hollande, like most other European leaders, has expressed outrage at allegations of NSA spying, the dust-up isn't likely to make any big dent in French-American relations. The same can be said for what Hollande calls "tax evasion" by U.S.-based tech firms (after Washington, the French President heads to Silicon Valley.)
Hollande, a socialist elected in 2012, is more closely aligned in policy with Obama than the center-right Sarkozy. His fluency in English might make him an easier dinner companion than his predecessor, as well as a more conversant travel buddy when he and Obama fly to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello on Monday.
Just don't ask him about his love life.