Editor's note: Philippe Coste is the staff New York correspondent for L'Express and writes a blog on "l'express.fr." His book, published in France, is about populism and the U.S. justice system: "Quand la justice dérape" (When justice goes off track). The views expressed are his own.
New York (CNN) -- We will never know how the French would have reacted to François Hollande's marital problems if they had not happened on the eve of the French President's first full-blown State visit to Washington since Chirac's grand voyage there in 1996. Nicolas Sarkozy's trips to the United States were several notches less official and formal, which had softened the blow to our pride when Cecilia, the then-President's second wife, had refused at the last minute to come with him to a barbecue at the Bush residence in Kennebunkport in August 2007. Before dumping him for good.
This time it is different. For all the talk about a nation of indomitable spirits and liberated mores, the French were in high anxiety since the January front pages, concerned by the intricacies of the presidential soap opera, in their own special way: The president had allegedly gone to his rendezvous on a scooter, like a libidinous teenager. He had broken up with Valerie "in an impolite way," and announced it in a cold and brutal 18-word communiqué that referred to himself three times -- a no-no in any elementary school essay. Worse, much worse: it was taking place when America supposedly had its merciless eyes riveted on us in the weeks before "our" presidential visit to the Obamas.
But the fear of a new hail of clichés, the panic of not being taken seriously by the big guy across the Atlantic at a time when our economy is shaky and our international influence questioned was soothed on the red carpet of Andrews Airforce base on Monday afternoon. The "affair" has so far mainly worried the experts of protocol in the White House staff, and Americans who know whom François Hollande is (most of them thanks to the Comedy Channel's hilarious mentions of the French "Alpha Dog of the Day") seem to observe it as an exotic curiosity beyond judgment.
America has changed and learned that its officials have few lessons to give in matters of personal indelicacies. And the superpower has rarely been more low key and worried about its own image. Its share of responsibility in the financial collapse of 2008, its political paralysis since 2010 and its guilt-ridden retreat from the world after two botched wars do not favor its international credibility and preeminence.
Had the alleged affair not happened, Hollande, even with his abysmal polls at home, could legitimately have played the lesson giver in the name of France and Europe. Paris, a decade after the "Freedom Fries" interlude, is now the most active and cooperative ally of the U.S in military matters, and is entitled to more efforts by the United States in the new battle fields of counter terrorism like Mali and the Sahel area. Having failed to convince Washington that American national interests were obvious in the pacification of the civil war in Central African Republic, where French troops are taking risks, France is nevertheless content not to be sent a bill by the Pentagon every time it uses American air transports in Africa. But controversies abound. Hollande, the first ally to side with Obama's threat of military intervention in Syria was abandoned overnight by Washington at the first change of domestic political winds.
He had to drag the U.S back to the drawing board after its sloppy attempt at a deal on Iran's nuclear projects. For all its good will, France, like the rest of Europe, was then shamelessly spied upon by the NSA and unlike a very angry Angela Merkel, had the good taste to forgive and forget the blunder, when he could have used the incident as an easy anti-American rallying cry for its own public opinion.
François and Barack have much to talk about during the State visit, including Hollande's sudden turn to the realistic pro-market center in economic matters, a move that enrages unions and the left wing of his own party and echoes some of Obama's own troubles. But the least the American president can do to make amends is to lend a bit of its superhuman popularity in France to the beleaguered occupant of the Elysée Palace. With unemployment still rising in our country, social and fiscal unrest brewing at the door of a seemingly insecure government, a tap on the back of the Friend in Need, some heartfelt praise during a beautiful dinner at the White House would go a long way at home and do more, in the short term, for the French bruised ego than any rehashed remembrance of Lafayette. That one is not running for office in 2017.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philippe Coste.