PARIS — The White House is rolling out the red carpet for French President Emmanuel Macron — again. The French leader is the rare recipient of two state receptions in four years under two successive presidents.
An Élysée Palace official who briefed the press ahead of the trip was not subtle in pointing out the divide between the two countries.
Thursday’s dinner, the first of President Joe Biden’s administration, is a tribute to the visitor’s unique role as Europe’s leader after the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as a tribute to France’s historic position as America’s oldest ally. But it’s also a sign that a desperate effort is underway to get a relationship back on track that has seriously gone off the rails in the past and is threatening to do so again. France and the United States need each other to deal with Russia, China and global inflation, but recently the United States has alienated Macron with its economic decisions.
In its two days of talks With President Joe Biden in DC, Macron will make a valiant effort to save his own fortunes and that of Europe, which hopes to continue serving as its unofficial leader despite losing control of its own parliament in June. The top of the agenda will be the US. Inflation Reduction Law, whose subsidies benefit American companies, especially manufacturers of electronic cars, have become a major thorn in the side of France and much of Europe.
That thorn is made even sharper by the bitterness that still hangs over the US-French relationship after a dispute last year over a lucrative defense contract. In September 2021, the US wrested $66 billion worth of submarine sales to Australia from France in an effort to restore American dominance to contain Chinese expansion.
However, the disagreement with Macron began earlier. Although Macron was also honored with the first state dinner of Donald Trump’s presidency, the relationship between the two leaders became strain which both Macron and Biden now hope to reverse. But even though Biden offers a dramatically different worldview, it will be a steep hill to climb.
An Élysée Palace official who briefed the press ahead of the trip was not subtle in pointing out the divide between the two countries. “This legislation has a direct impact on our industries,” he said Friday of the Inflation Reduction Act. The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Europe wanted to avoid «the capture of [our] markets by the Americans to the detriment of the Europeans”.
Macron will also visit congressional leaders of both parties in a further effort to impress Washington on the dangers of a potential trade war. Without any concessions from the Americans, Macron is prepared to lead Europe to a Buy European Law that could herald the launch of an open trade battle. If their meetings in Washington fail to produce results, many Europeans would probably say «go ahead» to threats from the US side of a tit-for-tat tariff war.
But there could be exit ramps. «We do not imagine that Congress, moreover, with a House of Representatives with a Republican majority, can fundamentally review the IRA,» observed the Elysee official. “We can imagine that the US administration [can] grant exemptions, for a number of European industries, perhaps following the model of what it already grants for Mexico or for Canada”.
And then there is China. Macron, and Europe in general, hope that China can become more of a partner than a competitor, particularly with regard to trade. “What we are saying to the United States is that, deep down, we understand their concern to stay on top of world leadership and make sure that in their relations with China they maintain the upper hand,” the Elysee official said, offering a preview. . of Macron’s argument to Biden. “What we also tell them is that we Europeans cannot carry out exactly the same policy simply because we are in Europe, not in America. Basically, we want China to deal with Europe as a full partner.»
The Biden-Macron meetings begin with a firmer footing on perhaps the biggest current international challenge: Russia and its war in Ukraine, where both sides pledge to see the conflict through to the end. Still, there is a feeling in some circles that Europe is being forced to carry a heavier burden to meet Ukraine’s needs.
Paris believes that Europe «brings most of the effort in terms of sanctions against Russia,» as the senior official told reporters last week. He is a heavy burden on European voters which France would like to see shared a little more evenly despite the much larger amount of military aid provided by the US. Especially as a GOP-controlled Congress continues to provide help to ukraine.
But above all, Macron is simply looking for some respect, or as the senior Élysée official put it: “Sovereignty. That is, the means to decide for ourselves and therefore be fully relevant”. Such recognition has been all too absent in recent years of the transatlantic relationship. If Biden doesn’t, or can’t, find a way to provide some concrete evidence of that, then both sides may suffer.