The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In wake of submarine controversy, Harris emphasizes shared future in meeting with France’s Macron

Through imagery and announcements, Harris has tried to stress the value of the long-standing kinship and continuing cooperation between Americans and the French.

Vice President Harris waves to photographers Nov. 10, 2021, before entering a bilateral meeting with France's President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris. (Pool/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

PARIS — One question has loomed over Vice President Harris’s trip to France: How badly frayed is the relationship between the two countries following a submarine controversy that French officials have derided as a “stab in the back” and something “Mr. Trump would do.”

Harris and the White House have sought to downplay any enduring enmity between America and its oldest ally as the vice president and French President Emmanuel Macron met Wednesday night at Élysée Palace.

And through imagery and announcements, both the bilateral meeting and the other aspects of Harris’s five-day trip to France have sought to reinforce the United States’ long-standing kinship and continuing cooperation with the French, as officials try to cast the submarine flap as a minor bump in the storied relationship between the two nations.

“Building on the great conversation that you and President Biden had, I look forward to the next few days,” Harris said at the palace Wednesday night in a statement packed with the words “our” and “shared.” “We’ll work together and renew the focus that we’ve always had on a partnership and a benefit to the people of France and the people of the United States and the people of the world.”

The dispute that has caused the recent tension occurred in September, when the United States, Britain and Australia announced a three-way security pact to share submarine technology, overriding a deal for the Australians to buy a dozen diesel-powered submarines from France. Paris, notified that its agreement was aborted just hours before the new pact went public, saw it as a betrayal by longtime allies — and the U.S. has been trying to mend international fences ever since.

In an analysis, France’s right-leaning daily Le Figaro framed Harris’s visit as a “charm offensive aimed at France.”

Ahead of the meeting between Harris and Macron on Wednesday, some analysts doubted whether her talks with French officials this week would produce meaningful results. “She’s seen and appreciated as a high-level visitor but not as a substitute president,” said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who focuses on France.

Both U.S. officials and their French counterparts tried to avoid fanning the fury before the bilateral summit. A senior administration official told reporters that Macron had invited Harris to visit France several times starting in February, long before the submarine controversy. The official said the U.S. is “forward-looking in terms of our relationship.”

Still, Harris’s trip is full of symbolism that seeks to reinforce the shared struggles that both countries have endured, and the shared values they hope will help shape the 21st century.

At Macron’s invitation, Harris will represent the United States at the Paris Peace Forum on Thursday, and, a day later, at an international summit on the destabilizing situation in Libya before elections are held there Dec. 24.

Earlier Wednesday, Harris visited a cemetery for Americans killed during World War I, a trip that seemed designed to invoke the symbolism of the nations’ intertwined history. The sitting vice president stood over the graves of American servicemen and women at a cemetery that overlooks the Eiffel Tower. Harris will attend an event commemorating Armistice Day on Thursday.

French officials have largely returned to business as usual in recent weeks — a marked difference from the furious comments France’s foreign minister and other leaders delivered following the submarine deal’s announcement.

But about six months before the French presidential elections, in which Macron is expected to seek a second term, the White House-level conciliatory gestures appear to be appreciated by the French government.

The French election campaign has in recent weeks been upended by the rise of far-right commentator Éric Zemmour, who has so far not announced his candidacy but is polling second or third in numerous polls. Zemmour has repeatedly used the sunken submarine deal to demand that France become less dependent on the United States. Addressing domestic audiences, Macron has made similar demands of greater independence, but in practice he has often sought close ties with the United States.

At an event last month, Zemmour mocked a conciliatory meeting Macron had with Biden in Rome on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, saying he had “never seen such a humiliation.”

This week’s visit by Harris offers an opportunity for Macron to convince voters that the opposite is true.

“By insisting on tightened cooperation on a broad range of issues while still asserting ‘strategic autonomy’ and ‘European sovereignty’, Macron has deftly increased France’s influence in Washington and strengthened the transatlantic relationship in one go,” Dungan said.

Winning that argument domestically may not be easy for Macron, however. Skepticism of U.S. foreign policy is more widespread in France than in Germany or the United Kingdom, according to polls.

Still, Harris expressed optimism that the problems of this century would be combated by the two countries working in tandem.

“I do believe and I think we share this belief that we are at the beginning of a new era, which presents us with many challenges, but also many opportunities,” she said Wednesday. “And when the United States and France have worked together on challenges and opportunities, we have always found great success because of shared values and shared priorities.”