By Jeremy Diamond, CNN
When President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron walked into a small celebration room on the sidelines of the Global Fund conference in New York this fall, their aides had allotted just 10 minutes for the two men to briefly touch base.
But sitting in the cramped room at 538 Park Avenue with a handful of aides, the two leaders ignored repeated attempts by US and French officials to end the meeting and usher the two men into the ballroom where several heads of state were waiting to start the conference. . About 45 minutes later, they finally relented.
“They kept talking and talking and talking. And so you finally had protocol people on both sides who kept stepping forward. I was actually wondering if they were about to physically grab them and drag them out of the room,” said a senior administration official, describing the meeting on condition of anonymity. “I think if they had been left alone, they probably would have sat for another two hours and continued to talk.”
The September meeting typified the close working relationship that aides say has developed between the two men. And it belied the fact that it fell almost exactly a year after Franco-US relations sank to their lowest point in decades, with Macron taking the extraordinary step of summoning his ambassador to Washington for consultations on a US-Australia submarine deal that blindsided the French. and it cost them a multibillion dollar defense contract.
Those tumultuous weeks are now far from the minds of the men or their respective administrations as Macron lands in Washington Tuesday evening for an official state visit, the first time Biden has bestowed the honor on any leader since take office almost two years ago.
The visit will showcase the critical alliance and increasingly close working relationship between the two men, drawn even closer in the nine months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, according to US and French officials. And it will be an opportunity for the couple, who value personal relationships as much as a tool of international diplomacy, to deepen their personal relationship as well, with a private dinner with their spouses on Wednesday night before the lavish dinner at state the next day.
Biden and Macron have met several times on the sidelines of international conferences and speak regularly by phone to coordinate the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including at least seven one-on-one calls so far this year and a dozen joint calls with other leaders. During the midterm campaign, Biden often invoked an anecdote involving Macron to argue the importance of protecting democracy.
And when Biden turned 80 earlier this month, Macron sent the US president a handwritten birthday card, a US and French official said, wishing him a happy birthday and congratulating him on his granddaughter’s wedding, which took place the same weekend.
Above all, senior administration officials indicated that the selection of France for Biden’s first state visit was intended to highlight the premium Biden has placed on core U.S. alliances, his vision of the importance of democracies in a world being tested by growing autocracies and France’s central role in both principles, both as America’s oldest ally and Macron’s leading role in its defining battles.
“I mean, if you look at what’s going on in Ukraine, what’s going on in the Indo-Pacific and the tensions with China, France is really at the center of all these things,” said John Kirby, the national security adviser. national strategic communication coordinator. “President Macron has been the dynamic leader within the G7, especially in Europe. And so the president felt that this was exactly the right country and the most appropriate country to start for the state visits.”
Other natural candidates for highlighting core US alliances in Europe have become less obvious choices. The UK has been torn by political turmoil and Germany has become a lesser known quantity on the international stage following the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, Macron is the longest-serving European leader in the G7 and has sought to establish himself as Europe’s pre-eminent head of state.
“France has in many ways moved to the front of the queue and has become the go-to partner for the United States in advancing transatlantic cooperation,” said Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. and former Senior Director of European Affairs at the National Security Council. “And I think that’s partly because of Macron himself, who leans towards Europe’s role in the world and who, compared to most European leaders, is quite active and quite ambitious.”
US and French officials do not expect the visit to yield any major results, but both sides see it as an opportunity for the two countries to deepen their partnership on a range of global challenges, from the war in Ukraine to political towards China and the challenges. posed by Iran’s nuclear program. The two sides will also advance working group discussions that were launched in the wake of last year’s submarine affair to step up cooperation on space, cyberspace and energy issues.
“We are in a very strong place with France. There has been a tremendous convergence of our policy on all major ticket items,” said a senior administration official.
Ukraine will be “front and center” in Biden and Macron’s discussions, the official said, from coordinating their efforts to supply Ukraine’s military to continuing to punish Russia for its invasion and mitigating economic fallout and energy in the West. These discussions come as Europe braces for the stinging effects of high energy costs and tight supplies and as recent developments on the battlefield of Ukraine have increased European calls for negotiations with Russia.
US and European policy in the Indo-Pacific and towards China is expected to take a back seat, following Biden’s recent meeting with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 in Indonesia and as Macron prepares to a trip to Beijing early next year.
“The two presidents will want to compare notes on this,” said a senior administration official. “Our views on China are not identical, but I think there is a strong view that we should speak from a common script in response to China.”
While the United States and France are closely aligned on the two major items, that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas of disagreement and divergence. As a difficult winter approaches, calls in Europe for Ukraine to move towards negotiations have begun to grow louder and concerns are emerging about preserving Western unity as the war drags on. On China, Biden will look to Macron to link arms with him to confront the country over its trade practices and military moves in the Indo-Pacific.
Perhaps the biggest point of tension will be more than billions of dollars in subsidies for electric vehicles included in the Inflation Reduction Act, which only apply to those made in North America. Macron has criticized the move as protectionist and French officials said he intends to raise the issue in meetings with Biden and congressional leaders. The Biden administration has created a task force with the European Union to address the issue, but the text of the law limits the administration’s ability to act.
Macron’s forward-looking stance on the issue underscores another dynamic of the Biden-Macron relationship: Despite the closeness of the relationship and overall agreement on major global issues, Macron has not been shy about cutting the his own space on the global stage, including by pursuing and maintaining back-channel communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and at times publicly disagreeing with Biden.
In March, Macron warned against the risk of escalation after Biden called Putin a “butcher” who “cannot stay in power”. The following month, he again warned of an “escalation of words,” disagreeing with Biden’s decision to call Russian war crimes in Ukraine genocide. And in October, Macron urged “prudence” after Biden warned of the risk of nuclear “Armageddon”.
Macron’s approach has irked US officials at times, but officials and experts say the freewheeling nature of the comments point to a relationship with Biden – and the US – based on more than a personal connection.
Macron had also secured the first state visit of President Donald Trump’s term, after staging a charm offensive that left some describing the relationship as a “bromance”. But that “bromance” struggled to survive as Trump repeatedly questioned the US’s commitment to the NATO alliance, leading to a war of words between the two men.
Both sides now know they have a partner fundamentally committed to the alliance, despite tactical and stylistic differences, especially in the face of the war in Ukraine.
“The irritants in the relationship are completely overwhelmed by partnership and solidarity,” said Kupchan, the former NSC senior director for European affairs under President Barack Obama. “I think with Biden, (the French) know they have an Atlanticist. And they have someone who has a transatlantic partnership in his DNA.”
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