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Macron's State Visit: If Biden Wants to Talk to Europe, He Must Talk to France

Interview with Dominique Moïsi

INTERVIEW - 6 December 2022

Before analyzing the visit itself, it is important to place it in the broader context of Franco-American relations. President Macron went to Washington on the first state visit by a foreign leader since President Biden took office. It is his second state visit to the White House (following Trump’s formal invitation in 2018). What explains this privileged relationship between both countries?

There are several elements explaining this French singularity. First, there is an element of remorse, of compensation, with regard to the AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation which occurred over a year ago. President Biden repeatedly stressed how the US acted unilaterally and unfairly, both in substance and in form. But more importantly, this visit reflects Biden's desire to send a message to Europe. It is symbolically significant as the return of the trans-Atlantic relationship to the center of American strategy. And it is France that most embodies Europe for the Biden administration, if only by default. President Macron, by virtue of "seniority", is in some ways the equivalent of what Angela Merkel was during the Obama presidency. The United Kingdom, though a historical and privileged partner of the US, is no longer in a position to embody the EU for Americans since Brexit happened. The country moreover recently demonstrated repeated and striking examples of political instability. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for his part, is somewhat of a neutral figure who does not (yet?) embody what Chancellor Angela Merkel represented. This consequently places President Macron as the confirmed interlocutor of choice in Europe, because of his seniority and competence - he is what I would call "a young old president". If you want to talk to Europe, you have to talk to France.

On the visit itself, both the IRA and protectionism were high on the agenda. Did discussions lead to progress for Europeans, who are anxious to be more competitive in the face of American measures taken in the bill? Did the privileged relationship mentioned above "help" the French president? Or were attempts in vain?

Unfortunately, I am tempted to subscribe to the second hypothesis. "America First" is not a singularity linked to the Trump era, which would have dissipated with his departure. In the current context, in terms of economic protectionism, we can see a continuity between both Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s presidencies. And I do not see President Biden making gifts to France and the Europeans. But for all that, it was critical that President Macron put forward these issues on the table. This sequence reminds me of the Oslo Accords, where Israeli Prime Minister Rabin maintained that it was necessary "to negotiate peace as if the terrorists did not exist" and "fight the terrorists as if the peace process was not being pursued". A similar form of "at the same time" (the famous "en même temps" in French) can be found in President Macron, who, in the context of Ukraine seems to be acting as if American protectionism did not exist.

As far as the Buy European Act is concerned, its adoption would mean European unity which, unfortunately, does not exist.

We are moving towards a more protectionist world; Europe's problem is that it has been too weak, and we must now expect Europe to do more. As far as the Buy European Act is concerned, its adoption would presuppose European unity on these issues, which, unfortunately, does not exist. For the moment, this seems to be wishful thinking. It is a projection, we are at the beginning of a process and not at its point of arrival.

The war in Ukraine was also at the heart of discussions. Joe Biden mentioned a hypothetical contact with Putin if the latter was considering withdrawing from Ukraine. An approach immediately brushed aside by Moscow. Another setback for the French president?

In Washington, Biden and Macron spoke with a united front on Ukraine - and that is the central point. They were both firm in their Putin stance, and firm in their support for Zelensky. On negotiations the reality is obviously complex: all parties say they are ready for peace, but the positions are too far apart to allow for it. For Ukraine, the goal is the total withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory. For Russia, negotiations will only begin if the international community accepts the territory gained since February 24. These positions are fundamentally incompatible. The conflict will last, with a stalemate this winter, with everyone preparing to be stronger in the spring. There is no room for negotiation insofar as both positions remain incompatible. What the French President is saying (namely that we must continue to talk with Russia) is a position of principle, but also a means of making the French difference heard. The nuclear issue has been put back on the table by the Russians and is one too serious to interrupt the dialogue. We must consider the French position in the broader picture of geopolitical power games being played. Turkey succeeded in imposing itself as an intermediary between the two countries, through which grain deliveries have been able to resume. In this context, France is standing alongside America but is ensuring both Washington and Ankara are made aware of the slight French difference. The fact that the majority in the House of Representatives has shifted from Democrat to Republican, albeit very slightly, could be a problem for American support to Ukraine. There is a risk that Americans will criticize Europeans for not doing their part in supporting Ukraine: for the past 10 months, they have been providing 90 percent of the military aid and could demand a rebalancing! The Republicans may want to press this issue.

Geopolitical upheavals are multiplying, as seen with recent protests in China, repeated provocations by North Korea, and uprisings in Iran. What joint positions can both the US and France take in this regard? On Iran and China, are there notable differences?

Protests in China and uprisings in Iran strengthen what Biden pointed out as the intensifying "battle between democracy and autocracy". Both the Iranian and Chinese examples point to a weakening of authoritarianism. China's struggle to contain Covid-19 echoes Russia's failure in Ukraine and the pre-revolutionary phenomenon bubbling up in Iran. We are witnessing a rapprochement of democracies against authoritarianism, in a climate reminiscent of that of the Cold War, to the point that makes us almost want to mention this "pre-Cold War" climate.

Protests in China and uprisings in Iran strengthen what Biden pointed out as the intensifying “battle between democracy and autocracy".

But the United States and France evolved. On Iran, in 2015 at the time of the signing of the JCPOA, France was on a much tougher stance towards Tehran, unlike Washington. Former French President François Hollande and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius wanted more firmness and specificity towards Iran, while President Obama wanted to secure an agreement at all costs. Today the situation changed, the United States and France share similar stances, both on firmness and openness.

With regard to China, there are still significant differences between both approaches. The United States’ stance is evidently harsher, while the European one is still struggling to distance itself from a sort of "naivety" and its "mercantile instinct". Gradually, the Europeans are becoming increasingly realistic, moving closer to Washington's firm positions. However, the EU remains very tempted to keep up trade with Beijing. Germany, in particular, finds it difficult to integrate this new logic into its trade policy. Overall, without equating the Iranian and Chinese examples, Europe and the United States have moved closer together on Iran, but there are main divergences with regard to China.

What can be said about President Macron's visit to New Orleans, Louisiana, and the cultural dimension he wanted to give it?

Emmanuel Macron wanted to end this state visit, which was particularly marked by economic and geopolitical issues, by emphasizing the cultural dimension, French soft power, and a push to promote the French language. He was right to do so. But as far as the French language is concerned, we find ourselves today in a defensive position. Throughout Africa, and in the Maghreb region, it is clear that the French position is complex. Can we, through culture, try to make up for the negative developments linked to the past? One thing is certain, of this entire visit, there is little chance that history will remember the passage in Louisiana and the references to the Francophone world.

The starting point in considering the Franco-American relationship remains the rivalry that both countries put forward during their revolutions.

France is not always aligned with US interests. President de Gaulle notably broke with NATO's military wing in 1966, while President Chirac ruled out sending French troops to Iraq in 2003. What are the biggest issues of contention in the bilateral relationship? Do you see growing divisions exemplified by AUKUS’ unprecedented diplomatic crisis?

Let us not forget that the starting point in considering the Franco-American relationship remains the rivalry that both countries put forward during their respective revolutions. Americans pride themselves on having their revolution before the French one. The French, on the other hand, maintain that the American Revolution was entirely nourished by French ideals and philosophy and that it could never have existed without it. When France was the "Great Nation," America was still a young republic and a small power. Gradually, the great nation became a middle power, and as a small nation, America became a superpower. Our two countries are therefore structural competitors when it comes to universalism. And history has made America the empire that has been constituted most rapidly, and that has shown the evolution "in negative" to say the least of France, and more globally of Europe.

To conclude, what key issues should be monitored during the upcoming months? What can we expect concretely following this State visit?

The key issue remains Ukraine, which is certainly felt in France as certain tensions are emerging. They come from an extreme wing in the far-right, which argues that France does not share the United States’ war goals, that we have no vocation to lose ourselves in an American war, or that the time has come to negotiate, and that the blame is shared. One can feel the temptation from a part of the French political class to distance itself from Emmanuel Macron's policy. If the winter is bitter (with the economic crisis, energy and power cuts…) the tension will be even greater. The main thing is therefore to maintain a common and firm vision between Paris and Washington: that of a total commitment to Ukraine. This is the priority issue for the coming months. And in this context, I do not see any future division between France and the United States. Let's say that "thanks" to Putin and Xi Jinping we are not going in the direction of further division, but rather of rapprochement. This does not mean that rivalries will disappear. More than ever, the United States is our strategic ally, which does not prevent it from remaining our systemic economic rival.

 

Copyright : Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

 

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