Macron’s arrival on Tuesday kicked off the first state visit of Biden’s presidency, which includes a lavish state dinner on Thursday evening, after the covid-19 pandemic prevented such gatherings during of the past two years. The visit also marks an ongoing effort by Biden to repair the damage done to US-France relations by a US submarine deal with Australia last year.
White House officials expect talks on Ukraine to be the focus of the French president’s visit, but the leaders are also likely to delve into the challenges posed by China’s rise and conflict in the Middle East, as well as tensions caused by Biden’s legislation designed to boost American industry.
Biden and Macron have forged a close relationship despite the early breakup over the submarine deal, aides said, noting that Macron, who became president in 2017, is one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders. making it a stabilizing force amid political turmoil in Britain. and elsewhere in Europe.
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But the White House expects tough talking points, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview sensitive issues. Among them is the Parisian public’s frustration with Biden’s Cut Inflation Act, which includes $369 billion in aid to U.S. manufacturers that many European leaders fear will hurt their economies.
But in a sense, the tension between the two leaders runs deeper, as the global alliance of democracies is rocked by authoritarian challenges from within and without.
Macron has expressed his desire to be a broad spokesperson for Europe, following the retirement of Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s departure from the European Union, and he seized this role to advocate for greater European independence from the United States. During a press conference in September 2021, for example, Macron urged Europeans to “come out of their naivety” and assert their autonomy.
Biden, meanwhile, sees reasserting America’s global leadership as central to his foreign policy, following Donald Trump’s assault on many traditional US alliances.
The state visit follows more than a year of U.S. efforts to smooth relations with France, America’s oldest ally. Last September, the Biden administration blindsided French leaders by agreeing to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia in a move that cost France a lucrative contract to supply Canberra with its own submarines. Amid a diplomatic uproar, France briefly recalled its ambassador from Washington and officials in Paris publicly questioned their country’s alliance with the United States.
Tensions later eased when Biden acknowledged “clumsy” handling of the issue by the United States during a meeting with Macron. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further strengthened transatlantic ties, with the United States and France playing a leading role in confronting Moscow and aiding Kyiv.
Beyond that, both Biden and Macron are proud to have defeated right-wing populists at home. Biden beat Trump in 2020, while Macron fended off a challenge from Marine Le Pen earlier this year.
Macron began his visit on Wednesday by meeting with Vice President Harris at NASA Headquarters to discuss a joint effort to promote rules of conduct in space exploration and development.
“Space is the new place of conflict, and we also have mad players in space. And we have rogue states, and we have new hybrid attacks,” Macron said. “We have the same commitment and the same attachment to science and progress, but we also share the same democratic values.
Macron and his wife, Brigitte, were due to dine privately with the president and first lady Jill Biden on Wednesday evening. On Thursday, the two leaders will hold a private meeting followed by a joint press conference and then the state dinner.
Macron hopes to use his visit to promote the French nuclear industry
In a sign of the two men’s close relationship, a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Macron sent Biden a handwritten note for his 80th birthday earlier this month and congratulated him on the recent marriage of his granddaughter Naomi Biden.
Discussions over Ukraine come as Russia has taken an increasingly aggressive approach by targeting the country’s civilian infrastructure, threatening its electricity, heat and water supplies. While cooperation over Ukraine helped build US-French confidence, the fallout from the war hit France and other European countries much harder than it hit the United States.
From the start of the invasion, Macron took a different approach than other Western coalition leaders, speaking far more frequently with Putin. He argued that it is essential to keep diplomatic channels open, especially with adversaries such as Russia, and he criticized critics of his approach as short-sighted. “Who wants Turkey to be the only world power that keeps talking to Russia? Macron recently asked.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary general, said he hoped the outcome of the Biden-Macron meeting would be more arms deliveries to Ukraine, including long-range missiles and heavy tanks. He said Macron has subtly changed its attitude towards Putin as the Russian leader employs increasingly heavy-handed tactics against civilians.
“We are seeing a gradual change in Macron’s attitude,” Rasmussen said. “He is taking a tougher stance than before.”
The meeting also comes as the pro-Ukraine alliance faces potential tension from the rushing winter, which could put European nations in a difficult position as they seek to ban Russian oil. Rising energy prices due to the war have created economic hardship across Europe, and officials fear many residents will struggle to pay heating costs.
A French official, speaking on condition of anonymity for protocol reasons, pointed to a number of French initiatives on the world stage to explain why Macron may have been selected for the first state visit of the Biden administration, including its positioning as first among equals when it comes to European leadership.
Macron has been a driving force behind the idea of a “European political community”, a forum of European nations, at a time when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has struggled to fill the void left by Merkel’s departure, the Britain has had three prime ministers this year alone and Italy has elected a far-right leader.
“He is the leader of Europe by default,” said Dominique Moisi, a French foreign policy expert. “There is no alternative to Macron.”
In theory, this should bode well for Macron’s plan for more “European strategic autonomy”, especially in energy and defence. But his leading role in Europe is not embraced by everyone, especially those in central and eastern Europe who think he has shown excessive willingness to reach out to Russia.
Macron has said in recent months that it is up to Ukraine to decide the terms and timing of peace talks with Russia. But worries about French pressure on Ukraine to give in to some Russian demands have not faded in some of the countries closest to Russia and most fearful of becoming its next target.
Biden and his top officials have made it clear they will not force Ukraine to the negotiating table, and many Central and Eastern European countries are looking to the United States for protection “without Paris as a go-between”, said Nicholas Dungan, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council.
“I don’t see any long-term political vision that Macron can try to sell to Biden that has a chance of working,” Dungan added. “Then the best thing to do is have a good time [during the state visit] and to celebrate what is a great relationship in so many other ways.
This week’s visit will contrast with Macron’s first state visit in 2018, when he was hosted by Trump. Although the two leaders were diametrically opposed on many issues, including climate action and the Iran nuclear deal, they demonstrated a degree of friendship that has remained rare between Trump and other leaders of the allies. traditional in the United States.
“In some ways, Trump was for Macron the best possible president of the United States,” Moïsi said. “The contrast between the two,” he said, made Macron appear more refined and “more reassuring.”
“He was everything Trump wasn’t,” Moisi said. “Young, handsome, sophisticated and cultured.”
But four years later, the dynamism of Macron’s early days in power has largely disappeared. In a blow, Macron lost his absolute parliamentary majority this summer, a result that threatens to derail signing plans. Some of Macron’s allies fear his two-term presidency could lead to a populist victory, allowing Le Pen to win the next election.
Biden, on the other hand, saw his party fare much better than many expected in recent congressional elections.
“Macron has less political capital domestically than Biden,” Dungan said.
Such domestic developments could influence power dynamics between Biden and Macron this week, experts and diplomats said.
“The balance between the two men and the two countries seems to have tipped in favor of America – not a neutral America,” Moïsi said. He said the United States is increasingly seen in Europe as “much more openly protectionist in economic terms and confident in its intervention in support of Ukraine.”