WASHINGTON – French President Emmanuel Macron was so furious with the Biden administration last fall over a submarine snub, he ordered his ambassador to the U.S. to return to Paris.
A year later, Macron himself is in Washington to be feted at a pomp-filled state dinner – the first of Joe Biden's presidency and the second such invitation for the French leader. Macron was also the first foreign leader bestowed with the honor during the Trump administration.
Both nations can attribute the détente in large part to Russia's war on Ukraine.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine underscored the importance of the transatlantic alliance and the need for solidarity between the U.S. and its oldest ally, said Célia Belin, a former adviser to the French foreign ministry.
“Ukraine is proving resilient, Europe is proving resilient, and the transatlantic bond is closer than ever,” said Belin, a Paris-based expert on U.S.-French relations and a nonresident fellow for the Brookings Institute, a think tank in Washington.
The alliance between France and the United States dates back to the Revolutionary War, a point both nations highlighted in the lead-up to the dinner. Biden and Macon will work to align their positions on Russia's war against Ukraine and air their views on the United States' approach to competition with China and trade with European nations.
Tension arose last year when Australia cut a submarine deal with the U.S. and Britain and canceled a submarine purchase from France.
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Transnational challenges such as the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis in Europe, the threat of a global recession and tension between the U.S. and China are far bigger than the diplomatic row that was the source of last year’s friction, said Gérard Araud, a former French diplomat who was served as ambassador to the United States under Macron.
“The issues today are so important, what is at stake is so important, that the Australian submarines business is not forgotten and not forgiven, but in a sense, it is a bit in the background,” Araud said.
Macron's second state dinner under as many U.S. presidents is also a testament to France's authority in Europe under his leadership. Amid political instability in the U.K., Brexit and leadership changes in the wealthy European nations of Italy and Germany, Macron has emerged as a global power player, fashioning himself as a conduit between the West and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
France has become the go-to partner for the United States, said Charles Kupchan, a former senior National Security Council aide to presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
"And that's in part because of Macron, who is an unusually bold and forward leaning leader in the European context," Kupchan said, "and it's in part because other potential partners aren't quite as useful as they used to be."
Macron has positioned France to provide what he has described as "dynamic balance" between the United States and China in their battle for global dominance.
A day after Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, on the margins of the G20 economic summit, Macron sat down with Xi. He said after the meeting that he believes China can play "a more important mediating role" in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and that he intends to make a trip to Beijing early next year.
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France is the top military power in continental Europe, and Macron is the longest-serving current leader of a major European nation, said Max Bergmann, a former senior State Department official and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"There's always been a level of mutual distrust and competition between the United States and France, and our bureaucracies haven't always worked together well or trusted each other," he said. "And I think the hope is that you can use a state dinner like this to really set the course for just broader trust building between our two governments, and then that snowballs and it leads to other initiatives and cooperation, whether that's over China and the Indo-Pacific, whether that's on climate, whether that's on trade, on all sorts of other initiatives."
Ukraine a central focus of talks
Biden and Macron have a long list of topics to discuss when they hold formal talks during the state visit. Chief among them will be the economic and military measures the West has taken to bolster Ukraine and drain Putin's resources.
European nations and the U.S. are racing to put a price ceiling in place for sales of Russian oil before a self-imposed deadline of Dec. 5. Macron would also like Biden to use the levers of government to apply additional pressure to American energy companies to reduce their prices, current and former French officials say.
The two nations' pursuit of clean energy sources will also be on the agenda, including the role that nuclear production can play in their emissions-reduction efforts, a French official said, and Paris' desire for more coordinated economic cooperation in the wake of Democrats' inflation reduction act.
Another issue that is expected to come up during the bilateral meeting between the two leaders is Marcon’s argument that Europe needs more of its own military power instead of relying so heavily on the U.S.
Macron has talked about the need to develop a stronger European defense industry, and the French would like U.S. backing for such a move and argue that a more robust European defense is in the U.S. interest.
“They don’t want to see the Americans fighting the strengthening of the European defense industry,” Belin said. “They have been making the case for years and years and years that a stronger, more capable ally will be one that has some autonomous capacity for conducting missions, that has some autonomous capacity of intelligence, and that if the U.S. is on board, it's going to be twice as efficient.”
The question, she said, is how much autonomy the Biden administration is willing to give to Europe.
Kupchan said the Biden administration likely has "mixed feelings about Macron's diplomatic activism, but on balance sees it as an asset, in part because it creates an opportunity for a good cop, bad cop setup, where France keeps a channel open to Putin while the United States keeps contacts with Moscow to a minimum."
U.S. officials said that the while Macron's visit to Washington is a working one, the formal affair is predominantly an exaltation of the nations' shared history and deepening partnership.
"While there are specific areas where we anticipate we’ll make progress during this visit, I want to stress that this visit really largely serves as a celebration of the strong footing of this relationship – one that is well rooted in our history from the very beginnings of our country, while also oriented squarely toward the future," John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters during a White House briefing. "And it’s a very dynamic, exciting future that we’re looking forward to."
U.S., France have long, at times turbulent history
Friction between the U.S. and the French is as old as the American Revolution. Last year’s contretemps over submarines is just the latest example.
“It’s almost like we’re siblings, with France being the older sibling and the U.S. being the younger one,” said Laura Auricchio, dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center in New York and an expert on 18th century France.
“We share a great deal in terms of values and outlook but sometimes we do get on each other’s nerves.”
Thousands of French soldiers fought alongside the Americans during the Revolutionary War. But even George Washington, who would forge a long friendship with the French military officer Marquis de Lafayette, was suspicious of the French soldiers who arrived in North America to join the war effort.
Auricchio, who scored an invitation to Macron’s arrival ceremony at the White House and a State Department luncheon with Vice President Kamala Harris honoring the French leader on Thursday, cites a letter that Washington wrote to Maj. Gen. William Heath on July 27, 1777, in which he griped about the large number of strangers who arrived on American soil “unacquainted with our genius, language and customs.”
In a grievance that would be understood all too well by future American leaders, Washington groused about “immoderate expectations” of the French and complained that they were impossible to satisfy.
From the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 to the “freedom fries” fury during the war with Iraq half a century later, the Americans and the French have continued to test each other’s patience. But Macron’s state visit to Washington shows the resilience of Franco-American relations, Belin said.
Inevitably, Belin said, the two countries are going to talk – and disagree.
“But if you take the long history,” she said, “those two are very close allies, very, very often standing together."
Francesca Chambers and Michael Collins cover the White House. Follow Chambers on Twitter @fran_chambers and Collins @mcollinsNEWS.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden to celebrate Macron, U.S. alliance with France at state dinner