TIME Opinion

Social Media Gossip Fuels Bigotry as U.K. Investigates Sex Abuse

Sir Cliff Richard seen arriving at Wimbledon on July 04, 2014 in London.
Sir Cliff Richard seen arriving at Wimbledon on July 04, 2014 in London. Alex Huckle—GC Images

Police search Brit pop star Cliff Richard's home in latest look at allegations of past abuse

The pop singer Cliff Richard seems not to have been the first person to learn on Thursday that police were searching his apartment in Berkshire, England, in response to allegations “of a sexual nature dating back to the 1980s [that] involved a young boy under the age of 16 years.” Richard issued a sharply worded denial, calling the allegations, that had circulated on social media for some time, completely false. “Up until now I have chosen not to dignify the false allegations with a response, as it would just give them more oxygen. However, the police attended my apartment in Berkshire today without notice, except, it would appear, to the press,” he said. Media camped outside the apartment published pictures of officers arriving at the premises and supplied further details alleging that the allegations related to a June 1985 rally held by the U.S. preacher Billy Graham in the northern English city of Sheffield.

Meanwhile, police stressed that the investigation was at a very early stage. That some commentators on social media chose to ignore such niceties is regrettable but not surprising. The courts of Facebook and Twitter have often shown themselves to harbor all the regard for evidence of a Salem magistrate prosecuting charges of witchcraft in 17th century Massachusetts. This tendency has been exacerbated in the U.K. by a series of horrifying revelations that started after the Oct. 2011 death of serial pedophile Jimmy Savile. The British TV personality had used his fame to shield himself against inquiry and abuse his many victims with impunity.

Operation Yewtree, the police investigation launched in response to the Savile scandal, expanded to look into a range of unrelated allegations of sexual abuse amid public outrage that the British establishment appeared to have turned a blind eye to crimes committed by its own. The police have already decided not to continue with inquiries into six people, some of them publicly named, because of lack of evidence. Other investigations and legal processes are under way and two have led to convictions, of the publicist Max Clifford and in June of this year of an Australian entertainer once beloved of British audiences, Rolf Harris. Separate inquiries are in train into a swirl of allegations linking Cyril Smith, a former MP who died in 2010, to a Westminster pedophile ring and abuse in schools from the 1960s through several decades. The officers who searched Cliff Richard’s house are part of another investigation again. Having failed for so long, the authorities seem intent on revisiting the past to try to make amends.

Justice served late is better than no justice; any halfway credible allegation of abuse should be investigated, however old and whether or not its target is famous and, like Savile, lauded for charitable works by Prime Ministers and royals. Yet increasingly the focus on possible historical abuse carries uncomfortable resonances, not cleansing but prurient, and feeding into narratives that seek to question lifestyles that fail to fit outdated models of the nuclear family. “This isn’t good news for single older men like me,” said a taxi driver listening to a news bulletin about the search of Richard’s property.

Richard never married. That fact shouldn’t be regarded as any meaningful guide to his sexuality, much less an implication of criminal behavior. But the phrase “unmarried”, frequently deployed as a euphemism for gay, has been freshly endowed with unsavory connotations too, by the focus on unmarried Savile (who turned out to have a predilection for girls though his victims also included boys) and unmarried Smith (whose alleged victims were boys). What is relevant is not whether these victims were male or female but that they were in many cases underaged and that Savile and Smith expertly used positions of power to behave as predators. But instead, each new revelation provokes public reactions that are not only misguided but dangerous. “I always knew there was something wrong with Savile,” Britons are much given to remarking. Well, maybe, but Savile’s single state was no more a reliable signifier of his criminal activities than was his flamboyant dress sense.

There are many things about Cliff Richard that some people find a little unsettling: his amortal determination to hang on to the appearance of youth, the bizarre calendar poses, the relentlessly chirpy public persona, the evangelistic tendencies. These do not mark him out as a guilty man any more than his evangelism—he told a Sheffield newspaper after the Billy Graham event “I go wherever Christians invite me to speak about Jesus. It’s a platform I’ve been given by God”—provides a guarantee of god-fearing behavior.

Sure, social attitudes in the U.K. and many other countries have transformed. We are far more accepting of difference, not least because difference has become the norm, with fewer heterosexual couples marrying or staying married or having children and many more people living in same-sex relationships or alone for a wide variety of reasons. But these changes, and attempts by governments to recognize them, continue to provoke backlashes too. The gay community is one group that has suffered, as strident opponents of same-sex marriage on both sides of the Atlantic have ridiculously and deliberately conflated gay and lesbian relationships with criminality. And unfortunately, when 60 Texas lawmakers claim same-sex marriage could encourage pedophilia and bigamy, or when British peer and former Cabinet minister Norman Tebbit suggests such unions risk opening the door to incest, there are receptive audiences for their views.

Stonewall, a British organization campaigning against discrimination, has been concerned by the intersecting hostilities unleashed in the aftermath of Savile and during the debate on gay marriage (which became legal in the U.K. in March). “It’s deeply damaging and dangerous to make unfounded comparisons between pedophilia and homosexuality. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people still face daily discrimination. Those who falsely link loving, committed relationships between adults of the same sex and paedophilia only seek to further stigmatise gay people,” says Stonewall’s Richard Lane.

The lesson of Savile and the other investigations his case has inspired must be to listen to victims, not to make more victims by judging people on superficial grounds and creating room for bigots.

TIME Scotland

Audiences Already Voting on Scottish Independence at Arts Festival

Edinburgh Festival Celebrated On The Royal Mile
Edinburgh Festival Fringe entertainers perform on the Royal Mile on August 14, 2014 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The largest performing arts festival in the world, this year's festival hosts more than 3,000 shows in nearly 300 venues across the city. Jeff J Mitchell—Getty Images

It's an overwhelming YES vote at the end of one play showing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The voters of Scotland must wait until the Sept. 18 referendum to decide whether they want to remain citizens of Great Britain or become citizens of a newly independent country. But audiences at a play currently on as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival have been casting their votes on a daily basis. Towards the end of Alan Bissett’s play, The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, everybody in the auditorium is asked to hold up his or her program, folded to show a YES for Scottish independence or a NO for remaining in the United Kingdom. After a stunning piece of theater, in which the devil Black Donald in Scottish lore plots to keep Scotland too scared and befuddled to choose to go it alone, audiences reliably deliver a landslide for the YES camp.

In the real world, the polls have been showing a different outcome, with the campaign for staying in the Union maintaining a lead of 46% to 36% according to the latest poll. But a record turnout is expected perhaps as high as 80%; and with 16- and 17-year-olds allowed for the first time to cast a ballot and a swathe of voters genuinely undecided, the referendum promises to be a nail-biter. Nobody can say for sure how an independent Scotland would function or what its wider impact would be, but everybody knows its separation from England, Wales and Northern Ireland would unleash a period of even greater uncertainty. Great Britain might need a new name (Lesser Britain?) and a new flag (the current, and iconic, Union flag incorporates the cross of Scotland’s St. Andrew). Scotland might need a new currency and a new relationship with the European Union. The pro-independence campaign predicts a standalone Scotland would flourish like parts of Scandinavia, an example of virtuous social democracy, a caring state contrasting with its neoliberal, austerity-ridden neighbors to the south. Voices arguing for Union suggest little Scotland would falter outside the U.K.’s protective embrace.

Defense chiefs worry that the Scottish National Party’s pledge to rid an independent Scotland of nuclear warheads would entail the loss to the remainder of the United Kingdom of its nuclear deterrent, currently carried on submarines based at Faslane on the Scottish coast, because there is no suitable alternative site in England. In some gloomy scenarios, the U.K. stands to lose its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council because of its diminished size and might. It would certainly lose at least some of its capacity, and willingness, to intervene in foreign conflicts. Separatist movements in other countries would surely take heart from Scotland’s example. And for years to come politicians in the British parliament their numbers reduced by the loss of Scottish colleagues, handing the Conservatives, who have only one Scottish member of the British parliament at present, a huge advantage over Labour, who would to lose 41 MPs at a stroke would wrangle with their empowered opposite numbers in the current Scottish parliament over the divorce settlement. The key points of contention: who owns North Sea oil and gas, and who keeps Scotland’s debt?

The choice facing voters is all about the future, but as Bissett’s play demonstrates, many of the arguments roiling the debate are rooted in a mythical past. In the first scene a sprite from folklore, Bogle (the name gave rise to the term “bogeyman”), picks up a DVD of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and says, emotionally, “that film gets me every time”. The movie’s false version of history of a Scotland subdued by England through treachery and muscle and not, in a more complex reality, entering the Union as partners and often benefiting from it has for years provided fuel to the independence movement. Bissett’s pro-independence play suggests that the Scottish will no longer depend on their tartan mythologies when they are freed, not from England but their own fears.

Elsewhere in Edinburgh, holding its famous concurrent arts festivals, alternative visions for Scotland are being laid out on stages and at podiums far more pungently than politicians dare risk. All Back to Bowie’s, a daily cabaret involving panel debates, comedy and poetry derives its name from David Bowie’s pro-Union message to Scotland: “stay with us”. The organisers pretend to have taken this invitation at face value and set the action in a tent atop Bowie’s Manhattan apartment. Again, sentiment routinely skews towards independence.

The audiences may not reflect Scotland’s voting population, but the appeal of the independence message against the sobersided caution of the pro-Union camp is clear. Come September, life may just imitate art and deliver a verdict that will resonate far beyond Great Britain or whatever the rump nation decides to call itself.

TIME Israel Boycott

Artists Split Over Cultural Boycotts of Israel Amid Gaza War

Protesters demonstrate against Israeli actions in Gaza, in central London on July 25, 2014.
Protesters demonstrate against Israeli actions in Gaza, in central London on July 25, 2014. Carl Court—AFP/Getty Images

Some critics of Israel also criticise the decision by a London theater to close its doors to a Jewish film festival sponsored by the Israeli Embassy

To boycott or not to boycott? That is the question sharply dividing opinions in two of Europe’s top cultural capitals.

London’s Tricycle Theatre has hosted the UK Jewish Film Festival for eight years. This year, the theater demanded that the festival return a small grant it receives annually from the Israeli Embassy in Britain; the festival organizers refused and on Aug. 5 found themselves without a venue. A similar fate befell an Israeli theater troup called Incubator, booked to appear at Edinburgh’s famous Fringe festival but chased out after noisy protests made its run untenable. Dancers from Israel’s Ben Gurion University in Beer-Sheva have also pulled out of this year’s Fringe line-up amid protests.

Israel has long been the target of boycotts. Groups ranging from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the broader-based Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an association of Palestinian trades unions and other organizations, have worked to isolate Israel and hurt it economically by encouraging consumers to shun Israeli products and services, including its cultural and intellectual output. They have also called for governments to launch sanctions of their own. Now such campaigns are spreading faster than ever as the renewed conflict in Gaza unfolds in realtime on digital media — and that very same digital media makes it far easier and quicker to organize boycotts or sign up in their support.

The issues are complex, but the logic behind some forms of boycott is relatively clear-cut. In calling for the United Nations and world governments to institute arms embargoes against Israel, six Nobel Peace laureates and assorted literary and music greats propose to inhibit the mechanisms of killing while increasing diplomatic pressure on Israel. Another group of luminaries, including rock star Peter Gabriel, this month joined a public petition to British Prime Minister David Cameron asking his government to enact such a ban on a unilateral basis. Commercial boycotts aim to inflict enough economic pain to force Israel to the negotiation table. Buycott, an app allowing shoppers to scan products before purchasing them to see if the companies and countries that made them has developed two campaigns targeting Israeli goods. Twitter is awash with hashtags and exhortations to boycott specific goods and services with Israeli links of some kind.

Some supporters of Israel would question the justice of such campaigns—and there are separate and very real concerns about the conflation of Israeli and Jewish identity amid rising antisemitism around the world, particularly in Europe. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of people view boycotts as a legitimate way to push for peace.

However, there are concerns even among supporters of other forms of boycotts when the targets are artists, performers and intellectuals. This strong critique of the Tricycle’s actions comes from Nick Cohen, who objects to the theater’s stance not because he is Jewish but because he sees it as a mob response “demanding loyalty oaths and imposing collective punishments”. Jane Wells, a New-York based filmmaker, also Jewish, recently served on the jury of the 2014 Jerusalem Film Festival and opposes any attempt to restrict cultural exchange with Israel.

“If you want any change to come about from within it is going to come from the artists and the creative community,” Wells says. She judged the festival’s Spirit of Freedom category in which “every single film was about conflict … those films are completely global in context, ecumenical philosophically, and they’re being shown to Israeli audiences through that film festival.”

British comedian Alexei Sayle, also Jewish, says “in artistic terms, I do find [a cultural boycott] painful; it’s not an easy decision to make.” But Sayle supports the actions of the Tricycle Theatre and the Edinburgh protestors.

The Tricycle posted this statement. The Israeli Embassy in London provided a statement to TIME:

“The Embassy of Israel regrets the Tricycle Theatre’s decision to cancel its hosting of this year’s Jewish Film Festival. It is disappointing that an institution that has been promoting values of tolerance and intercultural dialogue, should choose to disengage from a festival that has been running for eighteen years, providing insight into Jewish culture, as well as the multicultural diversity of Israeli society. The Embassy of Israel will continue to support the festival, just as it supports any other British cultural institution dedicated to artistic expression. We hope that the Tricycle reconsiders it decision, continues to promote dialogue and doesn’t give in to silencing this important cultural discussion.”

Some 250 demonstrators converged on the Tricycle Theatre on Thursday night chanting “Shame on the Tricycle; no to antisemitism, no to racism, no to double standards”. The theater’s decision to turn away the Jewish Film Festival unless it severed its financial tie to Israel may have impeded cultural dialogue, but it has opened another, far noisier debate.

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Crisis Will Kill the G8, Fears Germany’s Merkel

From left: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin answer journalists' questions during a joint news conference in Moscow's Kremlin Nov. 16, 2012.
From left: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin answer journalists' questions during a joint news conference in Moscow's Kremlin Nov. 16, 2012. Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

Germany has tried to limit Russian ambitions by holding it close, developing extensive diplomatic and commercial ties. The crisis in Ukraine has thrown that strategy into such disarray that German Chancellor Angela Merkel thinks the G8 may not survive it

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin have more in common than most world leaders. They speak frequently, especially since the Ukraine crisis began to unfold. In an age of cookie-cutter politics, their brands stand out. They wield influence. They have staying power. They are astonishingly popular with broad swaths of their electorates. They literally speak each other’s languages. As a schoolgirl in East Germany, the future Chancellor twice won the Communist state’s top prize for Russian. As a KGB spy stationed in Dresden, the future Russian President learned to speak a fluent and earthy German.

They also understand how to push each other’s buttons. After one of their first meetings, in 2002, Merkel laconically told her aides she had survived the “KGB test,” meeting Putin’s icy gaze without flinching. At their bilateral meeting in Sochi in 2007, Putin allowed his black Labrador Koni to rest her head on Merkel’s knee, aware that the otherwise unflappable Merkel is frightened of dogs. And both premiers know, viscerally, what Soviet power meant.

The difference between them—and this gulf may be wider than any that separates their fellow world leaders—is that Merkel remembers that power, and its toxic manifestation through the repressive state apparatus of East Germany, with revulsion. Putin, once an instrument of Soviet power, regrets its passing.

Some voices in the West argue that Putin is misunderstood: his goal is not to build an empire but simply to secure Russian national interests. Merkel, by contrast, believes Putin aims to recreate something of the past that shaped both leaders. Her reluctance to wield hefty sanctions against Russia in defense of the Ukraine’s territorial integrity has therefore harvested criticism that Germany places its commercial interests before its duties as a world citizen.

Germany does depend on Russia for about a third of its oil and gas needs; it avidly exports its goods and services to Russia; German business chiefs are lobbying against any response to the current situation that might hurt their bottom lines. But the reality is that until Russian troops rolled into Crimea, Merkel’s two aspirations, of containing Russian ambitions and fostering German prosperity, appeared compatible and interlinked. “Part of the strategy towards Russia over the last years was to get closer, to create some degree of interaction, and that has economic consequences, so the cost of any break in the relationship increases,” says Daniela Schwarzer, the Berlin-based Europe program director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Trade was only one element in this soft-power strategy. Germany has tried to bind Russia closer through diplomacy, and sees the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries not only as an important forum for discussion and decision-making but also as a mechanism for keeping Russia onside. As the West scrambled to formulate a response to Russia’s incursion into Crimea, Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier opposed a U.S. proposal to exclude Russia from the G8, but German officials privately believe that battle is already lost. Merkel herself believes the G8 cannot survive the crisis, according to one government source.

Publicly the rhetoric in Germany is hardening too. On March 9, Steinmeier gave an interview to the German broadcaster ZDF threatening Moscow with tough sanctions. Much though strategists still believe in keeping lines open between Germany and Russia, between Merkel and Putin, they also fear the consequences of schisms within Europe and between Europe and the U.S. And those calls between the German Chancellor and the Russian President are becoming chillier by the day. During their most recent conversation, on Sunday, Merkel told Putin the planned Crimea referendum on March 16 offends against Ukrainian and international law. Her spokesman Steffen Seibert said she “regretted, that no progress had yet been made on setting up an international contact group to find the political path to a solution of the Ukraine conflict. She pointed to the urgency in finally achieving substantial results.”

She didn’t blink when she looked into Putin’s eyes in 2002. Will she blink in today’s higher-stakes contest of wills?

TIME Royal Family

Diaper Diplomacy: Britain’s Royal Baby Goes To Work

Prince William, right, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, hold the Prince of Cambridge, as they pose for photographers outside St. Mary's Hospital in London, July 23, 2013.
Prince William, right, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, hold the Prince of Cambridge, as they pose for photographers outside St. Mary's Hospital in London, July 23, 2013. Kirsty Wigglesworth—AP

He’s already been tapped as Britain’s youngest and highest profile envoy, set to embark on a globe-spanning mission to strengthen the ties that bind the Commonwealth. But unlike most emissaries, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge won’t rely on the force of words to further his cause — and he had to get his great-granny’s permission to make the journey at all.

Heirs to the throne of the United Kingdom and the 15 other Commonwealth realms that bend the knee to Queen Elizabeth II usually travel separately, a precautionary measure to protect the future of the monarchy. But the Queen has agreed to make an exception, and so next month Baby Cambridge will leave the snuggly warmth of his Kensington Palace nursery to jet off with his parents Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge—Kate—on an official visit to two of those realms, New Zealand and Australia.

Republicanism occasionally bubbles up in these countries, with Australia going so far as to stage a referendum in 1999 on cutting its ties to the crown. Supporters of retaining the Queen as head of state won by almost 10 percentage points, but the vote served as a reminder to the royals that they must keep shoring up their further-flung franchises. Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited Australia and New Zealand in 2012. Prince William has made four trips to the region, the first in 1983 when he was just nine months old.

This was the first such exercise in diaper diplomacy. In opting to bring their son with them, Charles and his then wife Diana broke with a tradition that outsourced hands-on parenting to relatives and staff when royal duty called. Diana later told her biographer Andrew Morton that her opportunities to spend time with William in Australia and New Zealand had been limited, “but at least we were under the same sky.”

William and Kate’s schedule for their forthcoming trip, which starts in New Zealand’s capital city Wellington on Apr. 7 and ends 18 days later in Australia’s capital Canberra, looks pretty packed. Successful trips generate goodwill in the host countries and promote British products and services, not least that most enduring of brands, House of Windsor. So the royal couple will be on show. They’ll work rope lines, attend receptions, display their athleticism by participating in sporting events, get cheerfully soaked on New Zealand’s Shotover Jet boat ride, and spend an afternoon at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia — a rare species among rare species. Still, by the standards of previous royal tours Will and Kate will set a leisurely pace, ringfencing private family time most days, earmarking a couple of dates for resting beyond the public gaze and spending only two nights away from George.

Baby Cambridge’s own appearances will be more sparing, with photo opportunities limited to perhaps as few as four in total. There’ll be a glimpse when the family disembarks at Wellington Airport. His first ever fully-fledged royal engagement will come a day later, at Government House, when he attends a reception for Plunket, New Zealand’s largest provider of support services for the development, health and wellbeing of children under 5.

It’s a gentle introduction to life as a royal. Parents have been invited to bring their kids, so George may not be the youngest or wriggliest in the room. Laugh, gurgle or cry, he’ll still have done his bit for great-granny and country. As the images of the third in line to the throne are beamed across the world they’ll send a message about the future potential of Britain and its monarchy. Never mind soft power. Britain has babysoft power and it’s not afraid to use it.

TIME U.K.

Wet U.K. Swamped by Floodwaters and Politicians

Leader of UKIP Nigel Farage tours flooded properties and roads as he visits Chertsey on Feb. 11, 2014 in Chertsey, United Kingdom.
Leader of UKIP Nigel Farage tours flooded properties and roads as he visits Chertsey on Feb. 11, 2014 in Chertsey, United Kingdom. Christopher Furlong—Getty Images

The wettest winter weather in centuries has led to a deluge of attention-seeking politicians

There are two battles raging on an island waterlogged as rarely in its history. England and Wales are huddled against the wettest winter for more than two centuries, according to data from the Met Office; today the U.K.’s official weather service also issued a rare red alert warning of a risk to life and property as violent winds bear down on the country. Residents, watching their communities overwhelmed by flood waters, deprived of electricity or isolated after giant waves and howling storms breached roads and transport lines, face a struggle to survive. There have been casualties including 7-year-old Zane Gbangbola, thought to have asphyxiated on fumes given off by pumps used to try to clear water out of his home in Surrey, southwest of London. Many more face smaller griefs: the loss of personal possessions; the certainty of months, even years, of hardship and disruption.

The second battle is, for most Britons, less serious but it’s no less visceral for that. Prince Charles triggered it, by acting, as he told TIME, he is impelled to do. “I feel more than anything else it’s my duty to worry about everybody and their lives in this country, to try to find a way of improving things if I possibly can,” he explained back in September, and so on Feb. 4 he pulled on his Wellington boots and waded, more or less literally, into the issue of the flooding in a part of southwestern England called the Somerset Levels. “There’s nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people doing something. The tragedy is that nothing happened for so long,” he said, surveying the devastation.

It is safe to assume that he meant the failures by serial governments to invest in flood defenses or by the Environment Agency, the body tasked with combating floods and managing rivers, to act more decisively to mitigate further disaster and discomfort. Or he may have been referring to climate change, a threat that he has highlighted for decades.

What the Prince almost certainly did not mean is that it was a tragedy that public figures had not, until that moment, taken it upon themselves to view the damage for themselves. Yet that has been one side effect of his visit. This BuzzFeed post captures the result: 21 Pictures Of Politicians In Wellies Staring At Floods.

It won’t be easy for any one political party to gain traction amid the rising waters. The current Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition has cut the funding to the Environment Agency; predecessor Labour governments also underestimated the investment needed to dredge rivers and implement other precautionary measures. But that won’t put a dampener on the Westminster blame game, especially with a parliamentary by-election tomorrow and European elections in the spring.

And politicians need only look across the Atlantic to understand the dangers of seeming to do too little in the teeth of natural disasters. As ice storms gather again in parts of the U.S., Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been quick to assure TIME that his city is ready, this time. Prime Minister David Cameron, who yesterday promised “money would be no object” in helping those affected by the U.K. floods, earned sharp criticism in 2007 when still in opposition by departing on a planned aid trip to Rwanda instead of visiting his own constituents in Witney, West Oxfordshire, amid heavy flooding there. In past days some political insiders have questioned whether the current floods, Biblical in scale, might prove his Hurricane Katrina. Others see this as an opportunity for Cameron to demonstrate his calm head in a crisis. For the people on the sharp end of nature, none of this looks like an opportunity.

TIME France

So Much for Freedom Fries: America’s New BFF Is France

First Lady Michelle Obama, French President Francois Hollande and President Barack Obama pose in front of the Grand Staircase for an official photo before a State Dinner at the White House February 11, 2014 in Washington.
First Lady Michelle Obama, French President Francois Hollande and President Barack Obama pose in front of the Grand Staircase for an official photo before a State Dinner at the White House February 11, 2014 in Washington. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

What freedom fries? France and the U.S. have rarely looked closer as the Francois Hollande and the Obamas cozied up at an official State Dinner to toast the French president's arrival in Washington

This was only the seventh time President Obama had treated a visiting foreign leader to a full-on State Dinner and mon dieu but it was a flashy affair. French President François Hollande got the full works on Tuesday night: a menu of American Osetra caviar, dry-aged rib eye beef, Hawaiian chocolate-malted ganache and 300 guests summoned to the White House in his honor, including luminaries such as Bradley Cooper, Mindy Kaling, JJ Abrams, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Stephen Colbert.

You could see the logic. Louis-Dreyfus is half-French, Colbert’s name sounds French, and the wines, though American, were produced using French methods. The choice of Mary J. Blige as the evening’s headline act is a little harder to explain, but Daft Punk, France’s most successful band du jour, may have had trouble navigating White House security in their helmets. No matter: with both Obama and Hollande delivering effusive toasts to their very cordial entente, it was clear that the evening had successfully conveyed a message that suited both men: the U.S. and France heart each other. “We Americans have grown to love all things French — the films, the food, the wine. Especially the wine. But most of all, we love our French friends because we’ve stood together for our freedom for more than 200 years,” said Obama.

His warm words cloaked a dig at America’s erstwhile favorite chum, at least in the eyes of British mass-market newspaper, the Daily Mail. “OBAMA SNUBS BRITAIN AND COSIES UP THE FRENCH,” it declared in a headline above a piece describing Hollande’s first day in the U.S., a pleasant whirl of activity including a trip with Obama to Monticello, historic home of American founding father and supporter of the French Revolution Thomas Jefferson. Britons set great store by their Special Relationship™ with the U.S. and are apt to react like an official First Lady learning of a possible rival to her affections if America gets too close to another European country.

And in this case, they may be right to worry. Since France, not Britain, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. in joining potential air strikes against the Syrian regime and sent troops to Mali and the Central African Republic with U.S. support, there has been a distinct shift in transatlantic relations. Gone are the days when the U.S. dismissed the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys for their refusal to get involved in the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Hollande looks like Obama’s most reliable ally, especially as the French leader has signalled his magnanimity on the issue that could have thrown cold water on the burgeoning bromance: the NSA’s spying on French citizens. As Hollande told TIME in an exclusive Jan. 24 interview, he intends to forgive if not to forget, looking instead for “a new cooperation in the field of intelligence.”

So intoxicating were the love vibes in the White House that even the French press corps, usually a buttoned-up bunch, got into the mood, snapping selfies as Hollande and Obama chatted oblivious to all but each other, in the background:

TIME

Exclusive: President François Hollande Talks Syria, Spies and Secrets With TIME

TIME's Catherine Mayer and Vivienne Walt talk to Francois Hollande in the ƒlysŽe Palace, Paris. Marco Grob for TIME
Marco Grob for TIME

In an exclusive interview with TIME before his U.S. visit, the French president says the international community should've gone after Bashar Assad's regime back in the summer of 2012 before a series of massacres killed thousands

François Hollande has been known to spend nights elsewhere, but his official residence is the Elysée Palace. Here, in its 18th century splendor, he sat down with TIME on Jan. 25 in a discussion that ranged widely, from the malaise of the French economy to more personal travails. His approval ratings had dipped to record lows. Later the same day, Hollande would confirm his split from his official First Lady Valérie Trierweiler.

Next week Hollande arrives in Washington solo, kicking off an official state visit without the baggage many expected him to bring. French leaders have frequently tussled with their U.S. counterparts, and Hollande arrives in the wake of Edward Snowden’s game-changing revelations about America’s habit of snooping on her friends including France. Hollande calls this “a difficult moment, not just between France and the United States but also between Europe and the United States.” And, he adds, it has been uncomfortable for Americans, forced to confront “practices that should never have existed.” But, he says, there is no residue of bitterness between him and President Obama. Indeed he sees an opportunity “to build a new cooperation in the field of intelligence…We need intelligence services to fight against terrorism but they have to respect the principles of good relationships between allies and protect personal, confidential data.”

He even goes so far as to hold up the U.S. as an example to his own compatriots as he attempts to persuade the French people to accept his new-minted economic reform program that will mean some pain before the gains. “The first time that I went to the United States was in 1974,” he says. “I was 20 years old. America was in crisis. The dollar was at a low. The Watergate scandal had already erupted. And I still remember this vision I had of New York, which was a huge, fascinating city, dirty and violent. And I’ve been to the U.S. regularly but what impresses me most in this large nation is its capacity to overcome hardship and return to the heights.” He hopes to emulate that example but recognizes he’ll need to achieve results fast. “It’s the time scale that we have to shrink,” he says, using a familiar English slogan to make his point: “Plus que ‘yes we can,’ ce devrait être ‘yes we can faster’.”

The new issue of TIME carries an in-depth profile of Hollande and his plans for France and its worldwide role, based on that exclusive interview. The President’s priority at home is to revitalize the country’s torpid economy by reducing the cost of employment to businesses and trimming the bloated French state, a sharp change of direction for a politician elected on a Socialist ticket and one broadly welcomed by anyone with an interest in French prosperity—and that’s a large part of the interconnected world. Yet Hollande has no desire to trim the global role he sees for France. Syrian strikes may be on the back burner but French troops have been active in Mali and the Central African Republic. The U.S. and U.K., scarred by their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, are battle-weary. France, or at least its President, seems less so. “Even during this very difficult period, I wanted to demonstrate that France could assume its full responsibility on a global scale, no matter the area: human, financial, political,” says Hollande.

Of his aspirations on Syria, he says: “Our only goal is to strengthen the opposition and to avoid the dilemma whereby we only have the choice between Bashar Assad and al-Qaeda.” He says that the failures of the West led to this dilemma. “In August 2012, the international community should have been far more determined in dealing with the Bashar Assad regime,” he says. “He was weakened in political, military and personal terms. He had been abandoned by part of his general staff. The massacres had not reached the horrific level that we are now seeing.” The delay undermined the opposition and allowed al-Qaeda to gain purchase. Hollande had been poised to unleash air strikes on Syria last September aimed at weakening the Assad regime, when a last-minute swerve by President Obama led instead to a fresh bout of diplomacy. In a deal brokered in part by Russia, Syria began dismantling its chemical weapons capacity and Hollande stood down his strike force. “Everything was ready for the day that we’d chosen,” he tells TIME. “President Obama decided to go to Congress. But our threat to strike convinced the Russians and the Syrian regime to agree to surrender their chemical weapons. So it was a success for us. It was not as has been reported a victory for the Syrian regime.”

History is often made by accident. Hollande’s own route to the Presidency was full of surprising twists. His first two years in office has yielded quite a few shocks, not least his emergence as a figure of interest to the tabloid press. He is loath to answer questions about his private life, saying simply that it is “always at some moments a challenge, and that must be respected. In my own personal situation I can’t show anything.” And he tries not to show anything, apparently impassive as he answers the question, but flushing visibly. He wants to wrest the conversation back to important things like fixing France and shoring up the country’s global influence. His U.S. visit will be a good place to start.

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