Franco-American friendship in four courses

Under the crystal chandeliers of the gilded reception hall of the Elysée Palace, inaugurated in 1889 with a party for 8,000 people, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted President Biden on Saturday evening at a state dinner intended to celebrate an age-old alliance and to demonstrate that the bond is greater than its intermittent frictions.

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

“No need to brag,” Biden said, quoting the guide, “the French don’t like this!” The book urged American soldiers to be generous – “it won’t hurt you” – and said the French “happen to speak democracy in a different language, but we’re all in this together.”

That “same boat” from 1944 was invoked repeatedly during Biden’s five-day visit to France as if it still exists today in the form of joint French and US support for Ukraine in a battle against Russia defined as crucial for the defense of European freedom. . “We stand together when the going gets tough,” Biden said.

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

Under the gold caryatids and a medallion painted on the ceiling reading “The Republic safeguards peace,” battalions of liveried waiters in white bow ties, carrying silver trays, served with impeccable precision a four-course meal accompanied by champagne and a 2006 Château Margaux which had taken 18 years to achieve perfection.

There was a light salad that transformed plates into little works of art decorated with fennel, peas, other greens and assorted petals gathered around a pool of vinaigrette. A plate of chicken, rice, artichokes and carrots followed, which sounds simple, except that, on a base of artichoke hearts, slivers of carrots of various colors had been curled into rose shapes. A course of cheeses led to a finish of chocolate, strawberries and raspberries, again in the shape of a rose, enlivened by a coulis of “flesh thorns”, whatever that may be. In any case, it was very nice.

President Macron sleeps little, enjoys good food and has a taste for the wine of the great French castles. In this he differs from his immediate predecessors, who had less time for culinary diplomacy, a French tradition that has survived through monarchy, empire and the five republics.

“We have institutionalized the diplomatic dinner, especially after Napoleon,” said Marion Tayart de Borms, a historian of French culinary arts. “That’s why a new president always greets his chef as one of his first gestures. Everything in the state dinner has a political and cultural sense and must be balanced. “The stakes aren’t just on the plates.”

The balance during dinner was fine-tuned. The tables had names that included Great Smoky Mountains, Cevennes, Everglades, Redwood and La Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean that is an overseas department of France. Gabriel Attal, the French Prime Minister; director Claude Lelouch (a Biden favorite for his film “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” immediately after and “My Way” oozing with Brillat-Savarin cheese. Among the French contributions to the musical offering were “La Mer” by Charles Trenet and a sonata for cello and violin by Händel, with which the Gautier brothers and Renaud Capuçon cheered Biden and the first lady to wild applause.

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

The American soldiers who on June 6, 1944 “gave their lives for a country they did not know” helped create “an indissoluble bond,” Macron said. “We Americans and the French have a mutual fascination. We live the American dream. Live the French lifestyle. “We are possessive of what sets us apart and we are best friends.”

Indeed, friendship can be thorny, and Macron, in good Gaullist tradition, likes to say that France “will never be a vassal of the United States”. The two countries’ policies toward Ukraine and Israel are not exactly aligned, but, as the dinner demonstrated, a large reserve of goodwill tends to iron out differences.

Biden’s timing was good as Macron’s predecessors were less inclined towards culinary diplomacy. “It’s been 15 years since we have had a foodie president, who has a deep knowledge of gastronomy, of its pleasures, but also of its economic importance for France,” Olivia Grégoire, tourism minister, said in an interview.

He described François Hollande, who was president from 2012 until Macron took office in 2017, as “loving good food but always careful about his weight, not wanting to be fat, and therefore he was very strict”.

As for Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of France from 2007 to 2012, “he never drank wine and ate lunch and dinner very quickly”.

Éric Duquenne, who was the chef at the Elysée during Sarkozy’s presidency, said that a state dinner for a visiting head of state lasted a total of 35 minutes. “This was the record,” he said. “Sarkozy considered the table a waste of time. “All he drank was Coke Zero or cranberry juice.”

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

But in recent times, he said, culinary tastes have loosened, even at the Elysée. The days of lamb chops, beef cheeks and game at state dinners have given way to poultry and fish, she said. “You no longer need to sleep immediately after eating.”

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