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US state dinner for Hollande has French twist as president arrives alone after breakup

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WASHINGTON - French President Francois Hollande sat between President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at a state dinner, putting to rest the drama about his solo trip to the U.S. after a very public breakup from his first lady.

The A-list guest roster for the biggest social event of Obama's second term —with celebrities, Democratic donors, politicians and business types —tactfully avoided talk about "l'affaire Hollande."

"I don't get involved in those things," demurred actress Cicely Tyson.

Ben Jealous with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People admired the French intrigue.

"I think the French are way cooler than we are on a whole lot of fronts," he said, including "way better gossip."

Celebrities on the guest list included actors Bradley Cooper, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Mindy Kaling. Comedian Stephen Colbert snagged a seat next to the first lady.

The Obamas were on the front steps of the White House north portico to greet the French president, with the first lady clad in a black and liberty blue silk gown by Venezuelan-American designer Carolina Herrera.

Among the guests, one of the most frequent phrases of the night was "un peu." As in, no, not much French.

Obama, in his dinner toast, was deliberately sparing. He welcomed the guests with a hearty "bonsoir" and then confessed, "I have now officially exhausted my French."

He then delivered the requisite praises of all things French — "especially the wine."

Hollande delivered a good portion of his remarks in respectable English before switching back to French.

"We love Americans, although we don't always say so," he told the crowd. "And you love the French, but you're sometimes too shy to say so."

The White House tried to keep the attention on anything but Hollande's personal life, preparing an outsized dinner for 350 in a giant party tent on the South Lawn.

The White House last fall invited Hollande and his longtime girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, to come for a state visit, the first such honour for France in two decades. But then just weeks ago, the two abruptly split after a tabloid caught a helmeted Hollande zipping via motorcycle to a liaison with actress Julie Gayet.

Questions immediately began to swirl about who might accompany Hollande, but the 59-year-old leader ultimately decided to come alone, forcing the White House social team to make behind-the-scenes adjustments after months of choreography and planning.

Hollande is far from the first world leader to dine at the White House sans companion.

China's Hu Jintao didn't bring his wife to a state dinner in 2011. Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, soloed at an official White House dinner in November 2007, a month after divorcing his wife.

The main course Tuesday: dry-aged rib eye beef from a family farm in Colorado, with blue cheese from Vermont.

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Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Jack Gillum contributed to this report.

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Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac and Darlene Superville at http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap .

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Online:

State Dinner guest list: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/02/11/expected-attendees-tonight-s-state-dinner

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