President Biden is preparing to welcome French President Emmanuel Macron to the White House on Thursday for a long-awaited discussion of topics, including the war in Ukraine, at a time when Macron has drawn criticism for showing far more willingness than other Western leaders to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Macron’s arrival Tuesday kicked off the first state visit of Biden’s presidency, which includes a lavish official dinner Thursday night, after the covid-19 pandemic precluded such gatherings for the past two years. The visit also marks an ongoing effort by Biden to repair the damage to U.S.-French relations caused by an American submarine deal with Australia last year.
White House officials expect discussions about Ukraine to be front and center during the French president’s visit, but the leaders are also likely to delve into the challenges posed by China’s ascent and conflict in the Middle East, as well as tensions caused by Biden’s legislation designed to boost U.S. industry.
Biden and Macron have formed a close relationship despite the early rift over the submarine deal, aides said, noting that Macron, who became president in 2017, is among the longest-serving leaders in Europe, making him a stabilizing force amid political turmoil in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
But the White House expects some difficult areas of discussion, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview sensitive matters. Among them is Paris’s public frustration with Biden’s Inflation Reduction 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 worldwide alliance of democracies is roiled by authoritarian challenges from within and outside.
Macron has signaled a desire to be a broad spokesman for Europe, following the retirement of Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s departure from the European Union, and he has seized on that role to advocate more European independence from the United States. At a news conference in September 2021, for example, Macron urged Europeans to “come out of their naivete” and assert their autonomy.
Biden, meanwhile, sees the reassertion of America’s global leadership as central to his foreign policy, following Donald Trump’s assault on many traditional U.S. alliances.
The state visit follows more than a year of U.S. efforts to smooth over 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 provide its own submarines to Canberra. 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 calmed as Biden acknowledged a “clumsy” U.S. handling of the issue during a meeting with Macron. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further strengthened transatlantic ties, as the U.S. and France took leading roles in confronting Moscow and providing aid to Kyiv.
Beyond that, Biden and Macron both take pride in defeating right-wing populists at home. Biden bested Trump in 2020, while Macron beat back a challenge from Marine Le Pen earlier this year.
Macron kicked off his visit Wednesday by meeting with Vice President Harris at NASA headquarters to discuss a joint push to promote rules of conduct in the exploration and development of space.
“Space is the new place of conflict, and we have crazy players in space as well. And we have rogue states, and we have new hybrid attacks,” Macron said. “We do have the same commitment and attachment to science and progress. But we do share as well the same democratic values.”
Macron and his wife, Brigitte, were set 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 news conference and then the state dinner.
In a sign of the close relationship between the two men, one White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Macron had sent Biden a handwritten note for his 80th birthday earlier this month and congratulated him on his granddaughter Naomi Biden’s recent wedding.
The discussions over Ukraine come as Russia has taken an increasingly aggressive approach by targeting the country’s civilian infrastructure, threatening its supply of electricity, heat and water. While cooperation on Ukraine has helped build U.S.-French trust, the war’s fallout has hit France and other European countries much harder than it has hit the United States.
From the outset of the invasion, Macron has taken a different approach than other leaders of the Western coalition, speaking far more frequently with Putin. He has argued that it is critical to keep lines of diplomacy open, particularly with adversaries such as Russia, and he slammed critics of his approach as shortsighted. “Who wants Turkey to be the only world power which continues to talk to Russia?” Macron asked recently.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary general, said he hopes the outcome of the Biden-Macron meeting would be a stepped-up delivery of weapons for Ukraine, including long-range missiles and heavy tanks. He said Macron has subtly shifted his attitude on Putin as the Russian leader employs increasingly brutal tactics against civilians.
“We’re witnessing a gradual change in Macron’s attitude,” Rasmussen said. “He takes a more firm stance than he did previously.”
The meeting also comes as the pro-Ukraine alliance faces potential strain from the onrushing 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 throughout Europe, and officials fear many residents could struggle to afford heating costs.
A French official, speaking on the condition of anonymity for protocol reasons, pointed to a number of French initiatives on the global stage to explain why Macron may have been selected for the Biden administration’s first state visit, including his 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, 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 Moïsi, a French foreign policy expert. “There is no alternative to Macron.”
In theory, that should bode well for Macron’s plan for more “European strategic autonomy,” including on energy and defense. But his high-profile role in Europe is not embraced by everyone, notably those in Central and Eastern Europe who believe he has shown an 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 concerns over French pressure on Ukraine to give in to some Russian demands have not faded in some of the nations that are closest to Russia and most fearful of becoming its next target.
Biden and his top officials have made clear they will not force Ukraine to the negotiating table, and many in Central and Eastern Europe are looking to the United States for protection “without Paris as an intermediary,” said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“I don’t see any long-term political vision that Macron can try to sell to Biden that has any chance of working,” Dungan added. “So the best thing to do is to have a good time [during the state visit] and to celebrate what is an excellent relationship in many other ways.”
The visit this week will be a contrast to Macron’s first state visit in 2018, when he was welcomed 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 friendliness that remained rare between Trump and other leaders of traditional U.S. allies.
“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 polished and “more reassuring.”
“He was everything Trump was not,” Moïsi said. “Young, handsome, sophisticated and cultivated.”
But four years on, the dynamism of Macron’s early days in office has largely disappeared. In a major blow, Macron lost his absolute parliamentary majority this summer, an outcome that threatens to derail signature projects. Some of Macron’s allies worry that his two-term presidency could yield a populist victory, allowing Le Pen to win the next election.
Biden, in contrast, saw his party fare far better than many expected in the recent congressional elections.
“Macron has less political capital domestically than Biden does,” Dungan said.
Such domestic developments could influence the power dynamics between Biden and Macron this week, experts and diplomats said.
“The balance between the two men, and two countries, seems to have shifted in favor of America — and not a neutral America,” Moïsi said. He said the United States is increasingly viewed in Europe as “much more openly protectionist in economic terms, and confident of its intervention in favor of Ukraine.”