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Friday, June 21, 2024

French-American Friendship in Four Courses

Beneath the crystal chandeliers of the gilded reception hall of the Élysée Palace, opened in 1889 with a party for 8,000 people, President Emmanuel Macron of France hosted President Biden on Saturday night at a state dinner intended to celebrate a very old alliance and demonstrate that the bond is greater than its intermittent frictions.

Mr. Biden, addressing the French leader as “Emmanuel,” rose from a long table adorned with a bouquet of pink peonies and roses to say that “France was our first ally, and that is not insignificant.” He cited a book titled “The Pocket Guide to France” that he said was distributed to the American forces who, eight decades ago, fought their way up the Normandy bluffs through a hail of Nazi gunfire to wrest Europe from tyranny.

“No bragging,” Mr. Biden quoted the guide as saying, “the French don’t like that!” The book urged U.S. solders to be generous — “it won’t hurt you” — and said the French “happen to speak democracy in a different language, but we are all in the same boat.”

That “same boat” of 1944 has repeatedly been invoked during Mr. Biden’s five-day visit to France as still existing today in the form of joint French and U.S. support for Ukraine in a battle against Russia defined as pivotal for the defense of European liberty. “We stand together when the going gets tough,” Mr. Biden said.

The going was scarcely that at a sumptuous dinner served at tables set between the fluted columns of a room conceived a century after the French Revolution to project the glory of the Republic.

Beneath golden caryatids and a painted ceiling medallion reading “The Republic safeguarding peace,” battalions of liveried waiters in white bow ties, bearing silver trays, served with impeccable precision a four-course meal accompanied by champagne and a 2006 Château Margaux that had taken 18 years to achieve perfection.

There was a light salad that turned plates into minor works of art adorned with fennel, green peas, other vegetables and assorted petals gathered around a puddle of vinaigrette. A dish of chicken, rice, artichoke and carrots followed — which sounds simple, except that, on a base of artichoke hearts, slivers of carrots of various colors had been curled into the likeness of a rose. A cheese course led to a finale of chocolate, strawberries and raspberries, again shaped like a rose, enlivened by a coulis of “carnal thorns,” whatever that may be. In any event, it was very good.

President Macron sleeps little, relishes fine cuisine and has a taste for the wine of the great French châteaus. In this he differs from his immediate predecessors, who had less time for culinary diplomacy, a French tradition that has endured through monarchy, empire and five republics.

“We have institutionalized the diplomatic dinner, especially since Napoleon,” said Marion Tayart de Borms, a historian of French culinary arts. “That is why a new president always salutes his chef as one of his first gestures. Everything at the state dinner has a political and cultural sense, and must be balanced. What is at stake is not just in the plates.”

The balance at the dinner was fine-tuned. Tables had names that included Great Smoky Mountains, Cévennes, Everglades, Redwood, and La Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean that is an overseas department of France. Gabriel Attal, the French prime minister; the movie director Claude Lelouch (a favorite of Mr. Biden’s for his movie “A Man and a Woman”); and a host of French senators and artists mingled with the likes of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry and John McEnroe, the tennis star turned commentator.

A military band played “Amazing Grace” during the main course, “New York, New York” just after it and “My Way” with the oozing Brillat-Savarin cheese. French contributions to the musical offerings included Charles Trenet’s “La Mer” and a Handel sonata for cello and violin, with which the brothers Gautier and Renaud Capuçon serenaded Mr. Biden and the first lady to rousing applause.

When Mr. Macron opened the dinner, he assured guests that “this will be a toast, not a speech, and very short.” He largely, and a little surprisingly, kept his word. Addressing “dear Joe and dear Jill,” he spoke of the “spirit of 1776” that is always in the air when the French and Americans gather, an allusion to France’s decisive support for a nascent United States during the Revolutionary War.

American G.I.s who on June 6, 1944, “gave their lives for a country they did not know” had helped forge “an unbreakable bond,” Mr. Macron said. “We Americans and French have a mutual fascination. We live the American dream. You live the French way of life. We are possessive of what distinguishes us, and we are the best of friends.”

In fact, the friendship can be prickly, and Mr. Macron, in good Gaullist tradition, is fond of saying that France will “never be the vassal of the United States.” The two countries’ policies toward Ukraine and Israel are not precisely aligned, but, as the dinner demonstrated, a large reserve of good will tends to smooth over differences.

Mr. Biden’s timing was good in that Mr. Macron’s predecessors have been less inclined to culinary diplomacy. “It’s 15 years since we had a president who is a gourmet, who has a deep understanding of gastronomy, of its pleasures, but also its economic importance for France,” Olivia Grégoire, the minister of tourism, said in an interview.

She described François Hollande, who was president from 2012 until Mr. Macron took office in 2017, as “liking good food but always watching his weight, not wanting to be fat, and so he was very strict.”

As for Nicolas Sarkozy, who led France from 2007 to 2012, “he never drank wine, and lunched and dined extremely quickly.”

Éric Duquenne, who was the chef at the Élysée Palace during the Sarkozy presidency, said that one state dinner for a visiting head of state lasted all of 35 minutes. “That was the record,” he said. “Sarkozy considered the table a waste of time. All he drank was Coke Zero or cranberry juice.”

Mr. Duquenne recalled a state dinner for the former Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi that had featured lamb cooked for seven hours to form a confit. “It was a perfect marriage of our tradition and theirs, which is what you want, because French hunters have traditionally given lamb to bakers to put in the bread oven for hours until it is unctuous and soft.”

But of late, he said, culinary tastes have grown lighter, even at the Élysée Palace. The days of hunks of lamb, beef cheeks and game at state dinners have given way to poultry and fish, he said. “You no longer need to sleep right after eating.”

A rousing rendering of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” swept away any possible drowsiness. It seemed to sum up the spirit of an evening in Paris dedicated to the idea that an old alliance is still relevant and essential to the survival of Ukrainian liberty.

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