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Obama, Hollande to cement Franco-US friendship

WASHINGTON--U.S. President Barack Obama will highlight a new national security dimension to America's oldest alliance on Tuesday, as he deploys the full pageantry of a state visit for French President Francois Hollande.

A 21-gun salute and full military honors await Hollande on the chilly South Lawn of the White House, before a day of talks on issues ranging from Iran to climate change, trade to combating Islamist threats.

Later, Obama and Hollande will toast what the French leader described as a forever friendship forged during a time of revolution more than 200 years ago.

But Hollande will be flying solo at the state dinner in a huge marquee sumptuously decorated with French accents, amid turmoil in his love life that made global headlines.

The authenticity of the U.S.-French alliance, often tumultuous, lies in its resilience: ties are now tightening a decade after they ruptured over Iraq.

Washington has welcomed and provided logistical support for France's interventions to quell the spread of Islamic militants in Africa's Sahel region.

The allies are also key players in the group of world powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, and blame President Bashar al-Assad for gross atrocities in Syria.

France was also to the fore in a military adventure in its own neighborhood in the Libya operation that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi after an initial U.S. bombardment.

Hollande opened his three-day visit to the U.S. with a rare flight for a foreign leader aboard Air Force One on Monday.

The presidents then toured the Virginia homestead of Thomas Jefferson, seeking to forge a personal bond in richly symbolic surroundings.

The U.S. leader said Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence, ambassador to France and the third U.S. president, represented “what's best in America.”

“But as we see as we travel through his home, what he also represents is the incredible bond and the incredible gifts that France gave to the United States, because he was a Francophile through and through.”

Hollande extended the historical allusion to include the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who fought for America's independence in George Washington's revolutionary army.

“We were allies in the time of Jefferson and Lafayette. We are still allies today. We were friends in the time of Jefferson and Lafayette, and we will remain friends forever.”

Symbolism will cede to serious business on Tuesday, with Oval Office talks likely to focus on the war in Syria, Iran's nuclear program and Ukraine's political crisis.

The leaders will also likely discuss French military operations in Mali and the Central African Republic — Washington has provided air transport, intelligence support and logistical help for both French missions in Africa.

A proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the United States will also be on the agenda, as Obama faces a tough domestic fight to win authority to negotiate trade deals in a mid-term election year.

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 US, Cuba practice 'baseball diplomacy' 
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and French President Francois Hollande, left, walk together before speaking to members of the media following their tour of Monticello, the former estate of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia on Monday, Feb. 10. (AP)

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