French President Francois Hollande received both the American and Russian leaders at separate dinners in Paris - as well as Chancellor Merkel and Queen Elizabeth II. Needless to say, it was a delicate balancing act.
Major state receptions are not unusual for Paris. Yet on Thursday (05.06.2014), event planners in the French capital were slightly stressed. With security in the city at its highest, they had to keep hundreds of journalists, curious onlookers and, most importantly, the two most powerful men in the world, happy - and make the latter two stayed out of each other's way. It wouldn't be understating matters to say that the state visits of US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, presented a number of logistical challenges.
By afternoon, the courtyard of the Elysee Palace began to resemble a short-term parking lot. State vehicles drove in and out of the gilded gates, as Parisians and tourists stood outside in the bright sunshine watching the mounted Republican Guard on the Champs-Elysees avenue.
As if visits by Putin and Obama weren't enough for one day, Queen Elizabeth II was also in Paris ahead of the D-Day commemorations in Normandy on Friday (06.06.2014). Royal watchers waited for hours at the Gare du Nord train station, where the queen's delegation stepped out of the Eurostar train from London at precisely 3:20 p.m.
Accompanied by French President Francois Hollande, the queen then went to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. After a brief stop to change from a white dress to pink, she headed to the Elysee Palace for a meeting with Hollande. For the French president, it was probably the easiest part of his day.
Meanwhile, dozens of TV cameras were already set to capture the arrivals of the two prominent state visitors, with live tickers reporting their every move. After the whirlwind royal visit, Hollande barely had time to catch his breath before Obama - last seen at the G7 negotiating table in Brussels just a few short hours earlier - landed at the Paris Orly Airport.
Circling helicopters shadowed the US president's path through the closed-off streets of Paris. Hollande invited his American counterpart to a 75-minute dinner at the Michelin-star restaurant, Le Chiberta, where the two were hosted by chef Guy Savoy. On the menu: rare blue lobster, perch, a cheese plate and an orange-grapefruit dessert.
At the same time, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the northwest in Normandy, the first guests were arriving for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings on D-Day. Unlike Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to meet with the Russian president on the sidelines of the ceremonies on Friday, in an attempt to mediate the current frosty relationship between the US and Russia.
As the second German leader after former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to take part in D-Day commemorations, she is well aware of the importance that even small symbolic gestures will have on the beaches of Ouistreham. In that vein, Putin will also be meeting with Ukraine's newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, on Friday.
Gastronomic charm offensive
In an exclusive interview with French television network TF1 earlier this week, Putin indicated his willingness for dialogue, while at the same time responding to Obama's allegations that he was pursuing "dark tactics" in Ukraine.
Putin said the US was itself interfering in the internal affairs of Ukraine and other countries, making it a bit difficult for the Americans to be accusing Russia of similar abuses. Obama wasn't the only one knocking the Russian president this week: On Wednesday (04.060.2014), Hollande's ex-partner, Valerie Trierweiler, wrote on Twitter that she was glad not to have to shake Putin's hand.
When the much-maligned Putin finally arrived at the Elysee Palace for a late "souper," he appeared unimpressed, his usual serious self. Disowned by the G7 in Brussels, the dinner with Hollande was his only engagement ahead of Friday's major event in Normandy.
In the end, the media may have reported more on the menus of Hollande's double dinner date than any real political progress. But at least the gastronomic charm offensive allowed the French president to emphasize the importance of his relationships with both sides in the Ukraine conflict. If it's possible to resolve tensions between the US and Russia, maybe the next visit of the "great men" will be at the same table.