The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden says he might meet with Putin — but not now

The president spoke during a state visit by France’s Macron

President Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron embrace during an arrival ceremony as Macron arrives at the White House on Thursday. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)

President Biden said Thursday he is prepared to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin about ending the war in Ukraine, though he stressed that such a discussion is not imminent because Putin has not shown a willingness to seek a peaceful resolution and has employed horrific tactics against Ukrainian civilians.

“I have no immediate plans to contact Mr. Putin,” Biden said during a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron. “I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war. If that’s the case, in consultation with my French and NATO friends, I’ll be happy to sit down with Mr. Putin to see what he has in mind. He hasn’t done that.”

President Biden said Dec. 1, that the only way he would speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin is if Putin was seeking a way out of the war in Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden made his remarks during a ceremony-filled state visit by Macron, which was also marked by the French president’s complaint that some of Biden’s signature initiatives, particularly the Inflation Reduction Act, are boosting U.S. industries at the expense of European firms. Biden, seeking to smooth over the tensions, conceded there are “glitches” in the IRA and “tweaks that can be made.”

But much of Macron’s visit was occupied with the war in Ukraine, as Kyiv and its allies brace for a difficult winter in the face of Russia’s aggressive efforts to deprive Ukrainians of electricity and heat. Some diplomats argue that negotiations are the only way to end the war, but Western leaders have stressed that they will not force Ukraine to the negotiating table before it is ready.

Macron and Biden are largely aligned in their support of Ukraine, and a coalition of democracies has remained notably united nine months into the war. Still, the two leaders have at times taken different approaches to dealing with Russia. Macron has spoken far more frequently with Putin, and in an interview with ABC broadcast on Thursday, he said he plans to speak with Putin in “the coming days.”

In his appearance with Biden, Macron reiterated that it is up to Ukraine whether and when to talk to Russia. He said he has seen a willingness from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to negotiate, but added that it is “legitimate” for Zelensky to conclude that the conditions for negotiations have not yet been met.

“We will never urge the Ukrainians to make a compromise which will not be acceptable for them,” Macron said. “Because they are so brave, and they defend precisely their lives, their nation and our principles.”

Biden and Macron struck a friendly and familiar tone throughout Thursday’s visit, reflecting what aides say is a warm relationship that has developed between the two leaders. In their public appearances, they often touched each other’s arms, and at one point Biden turned to Macron and said, “Merci, my friend.”

Macron responded, “You’re someone with whom we are having very frank discussions on many subjects. We also have become friends.”

Their back-and-forth has not always been so friendly. The Biden administration in September 2021 blindsided Paris when it agreed to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, 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 alliance with the United States.

Marie Jourdain, a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously worked for the French Defense Ministry, said that this week Biden and Macron seemed determined to minimize any tensions.

“Both presidents really committed to resolve the differences,” Jourdain said, adding that neither conveyed the sentiment, “ ‘Yeah, I’m pursuing my own national interest and you have to deal with it.’ ”

She added, “I think the message, the signal, has been extremely clear on how … they intend to work closely together to have the same vision and approaches.”

Macron and Biden both repeatedly invoked the countries’ joint commitment to democracy and freedom. The lavish state dinner planned for Thursday night was the first of Biden’s presidency, reflecting a White House decision to honor Macron in a notable way that could benefit him domestically.

First lady Jill Biden previewed some of the elaborate details of Thursday’s dinner earlier this week, including the table settings and the design scheme, which is inspired by the colors of both countries’ flags: red, white and blue.

White House officials also announced the menu for the hundreds of guests: a cheese plate featuring three American cheeses; butter-poached Maine lobster; and calotte of beef with triple-cooked butter potatoes. Dessert included orange chiffon cake, roasted pears with citrus sauce and creme fraiche ice cream.

Jon Batiste to headline state dinner

This is not Biden’s only encounter with European leaders this week. He meets Friday in Boston with William and Kate, the prince and princess of Wales, who will be in the U.S. to help award the Earthshot Prizes, an environmental initiative sponsored by William.

But no other leader besides Macron has yet received the pomp and circumstance of a state dinner during Biden’s presidency, and it appeared to be part of a year-long effort to smooth over the earlier rift and court Macron as a key European ally.

In the lead-up to the French visit, White House officials stressed that Macron, as a relatively long-serving European leader elected in 2017, has been a stabilizing force on a continent that has otherwise seen its share of turbulence. With the departure of Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, Macron has sought to carve out a role as Europe’s top spokesman.

But the comity of Macron’s trip to Washington could not entirely camouflage the areas of tension, especially over the Inflation Reduction Act, a $700 billion law that is Biden’s landmark domestic policy achievement and, among other things, provides billions to support the U.S. clean energy industry.

In unusually blunt criticism ahead of his meeting with Biden, Macron warned that the Inflation Reduction Act could “fragment the West,” contending that the U.S. effort to provide billions in aid to its homegrown industry “create such differences between the U.S. and Europe.”

But Biden and Macron sought to smooth over their differences during their news conference, suggesting that the disputes can be worked out in coming months. “The United States makes no apologies — and I make no apologies, since I wrote it — for the legislation,” Biden said.

Still, he added, “there are tweaks we can make that fundamentally make it easier for European countries … It was never intended when I wrote the legislation, never intended to exclude folks who were cooperating with us.”

Biden conceded that in their private conversation, he and Macron talked about the Inflation Reduction Act “a good deal.” He added, “We’re back in business. Europe is back in business. We’re going to continue to create manufacturing jobs in America, but not at the expense of Europe.”

Macron also struck a more conciliatory tone than he had previously, saying, “We agreed to resynchronize our approaches in order to invest in critical emerging industries.”

In comments that appeared to be aimed more at his fellow European leaders than at Biden, he added that “we cannot ask the United States of America to pass a law to solve Europe’s problems … We Europeans must go faster and further to have the same ambition.”

In an allusion to the Trump years, Macron said that after years spent resisting the U.S. position, the two countries can now reengage. “We want to succeed together, not against each other. That was clear,” the French president said. “And that is what emerged from this morning.”

Macron to tout French nuclear industry in U.S.

Earlier in his visit, Macron met with Vice President Harris at NASA headquarters to discuss joint U.S.-French efforts in space.

The Inflation Reduction Act and the multibillion-dollar Chips Act — two central pillars of Biden’s agenda — were aimed in large part at countering China’s growing influence. But European leaders have long feared they would damage the continent’s own industries and possibly even ignite a trade war of sorts.

In late October, the U.S. and E.U. agreed to form a task force to handle these concerns, but there have been few signs of progress so far. The issue will be discussed next week at a ministerial meeting of the U.S.-E.U. Trade and Technology Council to be held at the University of Maryland, just outside Washington.

Absent significant U.S. concessions — which seem unlikely — some European leaders, officials and diplomats are worried about the possibility of a trade battle reminiscent of the Trump era, as each side seeks to protect and promote its own industries.

Biden to welcome Macron amid turbulence in the Western alliance

But the potential flash points between France and the U.S. go beyond economic issues to sweeping geopolitical concerns.

Macron has signaled a desire to be a broad spokesman for Europe, after 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. 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.

What's a state dinner, again?

Any underlying tensions contrasted with the pomp and ceremony of the state visit. The two presidents and their wives appeared cordial and warm as they greeted one another during a White House arrival ceremony Thursday morning and waved from a White House balcony.

Macron repeatedly praised a U.S.-French alliance that goes back to America’s founding and two world wars. “As war returns to European soil with Russian aggression against Ukraine, and in light of the multiple crises facing our nations and societies, we need to become brothers-in-arms once more,” Macron said.

Although neither brought it up, both leaders stake their claims to global leadership in part on having defeated authoritarian figures at home; Biden ousted former president Donald Trump in 2020, and Macron last year beat back a challenge from far-right figure Marine Le Pen.

As the two stood side-by-side at the White House, Biden acknowledged that they have not agreed on everything but argued that those differences are eclipsed by far bigger areas of harmony.

“Occasionally we have some slight differences,” Biden said. “But never in a fundamental way.”

Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.

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