Let others talk about Francois Hollande’s love life and which designer Michelle Obama is wearing.
When President Barack Obama and the first lady greet guests at the White House for tonight’s state dinner honoring the French president, the conversation will turn to the business of diplomacy and the diplomacy of business.
Along with cabinet members, ambassadors and celebrities, a state dinner brings together executives from companies ranging from multinational corporations to family-owned firms.
It’s an “overwhelming” experience, said Charlie Woo, 62, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based MegaToys and a leader in the Chinese-American business community who attended the 2011 state dinner for China’s then-president, Hu Jintao.
“Everybody’s a who’s-who,” Woo said. “You’re bumping into Henry Kissinger. I wouldn’t take that opportunity to do business, but it’s an opportunity to say hello to somebody and speak to somebody you only read about.”
Obama welcomed Hollande to the White House this morning in a ceremony in which the two leaders said the alliance between their two nations is too strong to be broken. It was the first in a series of events and meetings -- including a news conference -- that culminates tonight with the state dinner.
For an elite group of established and rising U.S. and French executives, the black-tie White House feast and the other events held in conjunction with Hollande’s U.S. visit provide a chance to network, burnish their images and lay the groundwork for future deals.
“The things that happen on the backstage are the things that help create business,” said Jean-Marc Gaultier, president of the French-American Chamber of Commerce of Washington. “The state visit is the facilitator. It conveys to the market the fact that the president is choosing the companies. It’s a sign of what he intends to push, on both ends.”
Hollande arrived in the U.S. yesterday with the French economy, the world’s fifth largest, barely growing over the past two years. Unemployment is at a 16-year high. His approval rating last week fell below 20 percent, according to a TNS Sofres opinion poll for Le Figaro magazine.
Hollande brought with him a delegation of more than 70 business and government leaders that includes Pierre Gattaz, president of Medef, the country’s main business lobby; Alstom SA Chief Executive Officer Patrick Kron; and Safran SA CEO Jean-Paul Herteman, according to a person familiar with the plans who asked for anonymity to speak before a formal announcement.
It also includes representatives from French startups including medical device-maker Carmat SAS, car-sharing service Blablacar, and telecommunications company Sigfox.
Peter Lengyel, CEO of Safran USA, said the company is viewing the state visit as an opportunity “to celebrate a half century of transatlantic aerospace cooperation.” The company makes engines for single-aisle planes through a joint venture with General Electric Co. and employs 7,000 in the US.
As the global economy has improved since the end of the recession, U.S. exports France have risen from $26.5 billion in 2009 to $31.9 billion last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Imports from France also have grown, from $34.2 billion to $45.3 billion over the same period.
Among companies that break down revenue from France in their filings, AptarGroup Inc., a maker of valves and pumps for fragrance and cosmetics dispensers, shows one of the highest proportions, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. About 27 percent of its revenue, or $650 million, came from the country in fiscal 2012, the latest figures it has filed. Other companies that report earnings from France include auto parts makers ITT Corp., Visteon Corp. and BorgWarner Inc.
In a country where cuisine is highly valued, U.S. fast-food restaurants are seeking to make inroads in France with Burger King Worldwide Inc., McDonald’s Corp. and KFC and Taco Bell owner Yum! Brands Inc. expanding their presence.
The U.S. and French governments declined to release in advance the names of executives who will attend the state dinner, where guests will dine on American Osetra caviar, a winter garden salad, dry-aged rib eye beef and Hawaiian chocolate malted ganache.
Stephen Silvia, a professor of international economic affairs at American University in Washington, said Hollande’s visit -- which also includes a private meeting today at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a trip tomorrow to California to see executives from companies such as Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. -- is “more cosmetic than anything.”
“This will not move the French economy one centimeter,” Silvia said. “France’s economic problems are at home.”
Business leaders, though, benefit from the “visibility and networking” of being in the delegation, he said. “They can say, ‘When I was on that trip with the president,’ which is worth a lot.”
During the Cold War, presidents would travel with executives and “concrete deals would be made behind closed doors.” Now, it’s more about image-making, Silvia said.
There’s an almost “desperate” element to Hollande’s approach, that the state visit can help his standing, Silvia said. What he and his government “really need to do is pull their socks up, take a hard look at labor reforms that actually need to be done and improve the French economy.”
Tonight’s event is the first state dinner for France since then President Bill Clinton hosted Jacques Chirac in 1996. Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, was the guest of honor at a black-tie dinner at the White House hosted by then-President George W. Bush in November 2007 that wasn’t given the official state designation. Sarkozy also was at the White House for meetings with Obama in January 2011.
Since taking office in 2009, Obama has hosted six state dinners -- for India, Mexico, China, Germany, South Korea and the U.K.
The guest lists have included business leaders who have supported or regularly consulted with the president, such as Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Warren Buffett, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co., Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! Inc. Also getting invitations were actor George Clooney, comedian Whoopi Goldberg and New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Lesser-known business and noprofit executives involved in causes dear to the Obamas or representative of key ethnic communities also make the list.
Will Allen, 65, of Milwaukee, the CEO of food nonprofit Growing Power, said his invitation to the 2010 Mexico state dinner came through his early support of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Initiative.
“The publicity about being invited helps our organization and the movement, just the recognition,” he said. He was seated next to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, he said, “so we got to talk about urban agriculture” and “I got to meet several CEOs.” He didn’t, as it turned out, network much with Mexican officials, and while his organization does some international work, it doesn’t have projects in Mexico.
Making the guest list can sometimes offer a delayed surprise.
Woo already has established ties in China as the leader of a family-owned private company with about 700 employees and $100 million in annual sales. “Most of my product comes from China,” he said. “We have a factory in China, a sales office in Hong Kong, and several hundred employees in a manufacturing plant in Los Angeles.”
He learned after the fact that a Hong Kong publication “did a story on me because they saw my name there. I was not interviewed. I didn’t even know!”
“I’d say it’s a little tacky to make a business connection at the White House,” he said. “But you’re rubbing shoulders. Maybe you file it away and can use it later.”