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Obama, France's Hollande make pilgrimage to Jefferson's Monticello

France's President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during the ceremony marking the adoption of a new constitution, at the Constituent As
France's President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during the ceremony marking the adoption of a new constitution, at the Constituent As

By Jeff Mason

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande toured Thomas Jefferson's plantation estate on Monday in a show of solidarity for Franco-American ties that have endured for more than two centuries despite the occasional tempest.

The visit to Monticello, home to America's third president, served to showcase a relationship that stretches back to the founding of the United States in the late 18th century, an alliance still strong despite spats over U.S. eavesdropping and trade talks with the European Union.

Hollande, 59, who split from his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, last month after an affair with an actress, arrived solo for the first state visit hosted by Obama since he won a second term in 2012.

The two leaders will get down to business on Tuesday with White House talks, covering topics such as Iran, Syria, restive North Africa and trade, followed by a joint news conference. A Tuesday evening state dinner features aged rib-eye beef and American wine and a musical performance by Mary J. Blige.

Monday was all about symbolism. Obama met Hollande at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington shortly after the French leader arrived from Paris, and together they flew aboard Air Force One to Charlottesville.

At Monticello, they toured the unique home designed by Jefferson, including its distinctive crowning portico and the Cabinet room Jefferson used for writing, architectural drafting and scientific observation. They saw the basement kitchen equipped with utensils he brought back from Paris after serving as U.S. ambassador to France.

"Thomas Jefferson represents 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," Obama told reporters.

He said the house also represents the complicated history of the United States since "slaves helped to build this magnificent structure.

"It's a reminder for both of us that we are in a continuous fight on behalf of the rights of all peoples," Obama said.

Hollande noted the significant role played by a French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, in helping George Washington defeat the British colonial power.

"We were allies in the time of Jefferson and Lafayette. We are still allies today. We were friends at the time of Jefferson and Lafayette and will remain friends forever," he said.

Today's collaboration is a far cry from the strains of a decade ago, when France refused to join the Iraq war. But France also has made known its unhappiness over National Security Agency spying practices. Hollande told Time magazine that the agency's tactics "should never have existed" and had caused "a difficult moment, not just between France and the United States but also between Europe and the United States."

Washington's relations with the European Union have also been ruffled by a U.S. diplomat's secretly recorded expletive to disparage the EU's handling of the political crisis in Ukraine.

The United States and France have cooperated in diplomacy on Syria and Iran, but do not always agree on economic issues, such as a U.S.-EU trade deal on which negotiations began in July.

France set several preconditions before allowing the talks to start, insisting that the audio-visual sector, including cinema and books, be excluded from discussions.

French tax authorities have also put U.S. Internet giant Google under audit about accounting procedures that channel sales through Ireland. Google rejects suggestions that this is an attempt at tax-dodging.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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