White House State Dinners, between Faux Pas and Tradition

On December 1, 2022, Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron will be received in Washington by Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. On this occasion, our journalist breaks down the American tradition of state dinners.
© Associated Press

No French person in their right mind comes to America for the food; but once they’re there they have to eat. If they are the president, they can often count on at least one meal at the White House at a state dinner in their honor. State dinners are the White House’s most sumptuous social event, a signal of the importance of the guest, and an occasion to show off American hospitality at the highest level. When the dinner guest is French, the challenge to the American hosts rises sharply; but essentially, the main ingredients remain the same.

They include a visiting head of State and his entourage, their American counterparts, an additional sprinkling of American and foreign notables, toasts (spoken, not eaten), and, of course, food. To this combination every presidential couple adds their individual flavor.

Given the president’s natural flamboyance, the Trumps’ first state dinner in April 2018 in honor of President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte was a surprisingly low-key affair. But the dinner was planned by Melania Trump and her personal staff in her first important function as First Lady, and her online video of the months of preparation, together with the event itself, reflect her own taste, rather than her husband’s.

Intimate Dinner or Huge Affair?

Let’s start with the numbers: The dinner was one of the smallest on record, 123 guests. The Obama dinner for President François Hollande in February 2014, a huge affair with a guest list of 280, was more typical.

Included in President Hollande’s delegation in 2014 was the president’s special adviser – none other than Emmanuel Macron. Which is why the more recent evening must have had a flavor of déjà vu for the French president. More so for Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who hails from France and is a former French government minister. Lagarde has now been a guest at three state dinners for a visiting French head of state – Presidents Macron, Hollande, and Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Trumps’ dinner scored a first in at least one respect. As long as anyone can remember, presidents have always invited a sprinkling of members of the White House press corps and other prominent members of the working press. The Trumps did not. Given Trump’s running war with the mainstream media this is not hard to understand. True, media mogul and Trump supporter Rupert Murdoch was there, but he hardly qualifies as working press.

Past state dinners have also been an occasion to demonstrate political bipartisanship, but not this one. No Democrats from either the Senate or the Congress were invited.

According to the White House, the first recorded state dinner for a visiting French leader was in 1931, when President Herbert Hoover hosted Prime Minister Pierre Laval. Since then, every post-war French president has been similarly feted, two of them twice. Charles de Gaulle was wined and dined by President Truman when the general was provisional French president, and again by President Dwight Eisenhower, his wartime comrade, in 1960. Before the dinner, de Gaulle placed a wreath at the foot of Lafayette’s statue outside the White House. Jacques Chirac’s first presidential host – in 1987 – was Ronald Reagan. He was still prime minister at the time. His second, in 1996, was Bill Clinton.

Demonstrations and Jazz Music

State dinners are sometimes an occasion for demonstrators to make their grievances heard outside the White House. Only one French president was ever targeted by protesters, and that was Georges Pompidou. As he arrived, a pro-Israeli crowd chanted “Lafayette yes, Pompidou no” to protest the sale of French Mirage fighters to the Libyan regime.

Giscard d’Estaing arrived in Washington in style on the now defunct Concorde, itself the subject of objections by environmentalists, but there were no protests outside the state dinner. The supersonic plane began its regular service between Paris and the nation’s capital (3 hours and 55 minutes) a few days later despite complaints about noise pollution, but it was short-lived.

Movie stars, and French personalities from the business world and the arts are included as supporting actors to what is essentially a time-honored framework for a bi-lateral summit. With Macron at the White House, the French guests included Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury conglomerate LVMH, and his wife Hélène, the president of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Laurence Engel, and the director of the Musée d’Orsay, Laurence des Cars.

At the Sarkozy dinner in 2007, Guy Wildenstein, patriarch of an art-dealing dynasty, and the restauranteur Guy Savoy were on the guest list. Xavier Guerrand-Hermès, then chairman of the famous Paris-based fashion house, was among the invitees when Giscard d’Estaing was entertained by Gerald Ford.

The evening’s entertainment has over the years covered the gamut from jazz to opera. The Ford White House opted for the legendary jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. The Obamas favored pop celebrities like Beyonce. At the Hollande dinner, the president sat on Michelle Obama’s right, as protocol demanded, and the late-night television host Stephen Colbert was on her left. Never mind that in his previous night’s show he had made jokes about Valérie Trierweiler, the president’s recent ex-romantic partner.

Melania Trump opted for operatic entertainment, and two sopranos from the Washington National Opera performed Francis Poulenc’s “Les Chemins de l’Amour,” and the hauntingly beautiful “Flower Duet” from Lakmé, an opera by Léo Delibes about a British officer’s tragic love for an Indian woman in the time of the British Raj. Later, though, the U.S. Army and Air Force strings went Gallic with a rendition of “La Vie en Rose.”

Sarkozy and Hollande provided their own entertainment in the form of gossip about their respective amours. Sarkozy was not accompanied to Washington by his wife Cécilia Ciganer because they had recently divorced. The Americans were expecting Hollande to be accompanied by his then-partner Valérie Trierweiler, but the French couple broke off the relationship days before the visit, causing the White House to destroy hundreds of invitations which bore her name.

To Lafayette! To Rochambeau!

And what can one say about the cuisine? The overall approach of White House chefs over the years has been to resist the temptation of offering folksy American dishes, and to prepare high-quality classic menus, with occasional local touches.

Trump’s idea of gastronomic heaven is a cheeseburger slathered in ketchup and washed down with Diet Coke. But the menu for the Macron dinner consisted of goat cheese gâteau, tomato jam, and biscuit, with to follow rack of Spring lamb with Jambalaya (a Louisiana-origin dish of both Spanish and French influence) and Carolina gold rice, and a dessert of nectarine tart with ice cream. The wines were Californian.

Between courses comes an exchange of verbal genuflections ending with each leader proposing a toast to the other. Virtually every presidential host has invoked the name of Lafayette as a symbol of Franco-American friendship, Trump included. Rochambeau also gets an occasional mention, as he did in the remarks by President Trump, who also quoted Victor Hugo.

Macron’s response sounded more – well, pragmatic about the personal relationship. In the run-up of the presidential visit, the French had pushed back against the “best-buddy” talk coming out of Washington. And Macron used his remarks to put his friendship with Trump in perspective. Yes, he said, “many comment on our friendship,” but it serves a broader purpose of maintaining the bi-lateral dialogue, and what Macron called “the statute of universality” – stability and universal values, serving “both our countries and the rest of the world.”

“I got to know you, you got to know me,” he went on. “We both know that neither of us easily changes his mind. But we will work together, and we have this ability to listen to one another.” It sounds even less chummy in French.


Article published in the June 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.