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September 23, 2017

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France's Hollande arrives in Washington without first lady

PARIS--France's suddenly single president arrives Monday in the U.S. for a state visit, hoping the glaring absence of his first lady won't steal the limelight from his focus on major policy issues with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Francois Hollande, a bespectacled 59-year-old former Socialist party boss, will be highlighting France's shared interests with Washington on issues like Syria's civil war, Iran's nuclear program and terrorism in Africa.

First, he may need to get past the snickers: Hollande drew headlines and ridicule worldwide last month after a gossip magazine reported that he had zipped through Paris in a face-covering helmet on a motor scooter for a tryst with French actress Julie Gayet — unbeknownst to his first lady.

He has since split with Valerie Trierweiler, his partner of several years, who won't be at the state dinner. She's now reportedly vacationing on a balmy Indian Ocean island. The French have largely shrugged off the reported affair as a private matter, even if they too have devoured the story on the airwaves and in print.

But Hollande's political headaches are worse. Polls suggest his popularity is at historic lows. One last week found that fewer than one in five French trust his leadership. His 20-month mantra about job-creation and economic growth has produced few results.

The embattled Socialist leader will be able to bask in some symbolic glow: Obama is still widely liked in France, and Hollande will get the grand reception reserved for America's closest allies.

He and Obama will hold a news conference on Tuesday, and visit Arlington National Cemetery — in this 70th-anniversary year of the Allied landings in Normandy during World War II.

The state dinner will hardly be Obama's first with a dose of drama. One in 2009 was marred by a pair of party crashers. Another was canceled last year when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff scrapped her trip to Washington to protest the National Security Agency spying.

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