Macron hosts Biden in Paris, honoring a bond that is not always easy

In the sunlight of Normandy, in front of the surviving American veterans who helped turn the tide of the war against Hitler eighty years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke last week of the “bond of blood shed for freedom” that binds the his country in the United States.

It's a connection that dates back to the founding of the United States in 1776 and decisive French support for American independence against the British. Stormy, often strained as France clashes with postwar American leadership in Europe, ties between Paris and Washington are nevertheless resilient.

President Biden's five-day stay in France, an exceptionally long visit for an American president, especially in an election year, is a powerful testament to this friendship. But it illustrates its double-edged nature. French gratitude for American sacrifice, as always, rivals uneasily Gaullist restlessness at any hint of submission.

These competing strands will be the backdrop to a lavish state dinner at the Elysée Palace on Saturday, when Macron reciprocates the state visit Biden organized for him to the White House in December 2022, the first of his administration.

The toasts and bonhomie will not entirely mask the tensions between Washington and Paris – over the war in Gaza, over how best to support Ukraine and the unpredictable ways in which Macron seeks to assert France's independence from the United States.

No recent French president has been as insistent as Macron in declaring Europe's need for “strategic autonomy” and insisting that it “should never be a vassal of the United States.” Yet he stood shoulder to shoulder with Biden in seeing Ukraine's struggle for freedom against Russia as nothing less than a battle for European freedom, an extension of the freedom struggle that led Allied forces to scale the cliffs of the Pointe du Hoc in 1944.

“You can't help but see the parallel,” Macron said last week in a television interview, describing Ukraine as “a people confronting a power that I would not compare to Nazi Germany, because there is no same ideology, but an imperialist power that has trampled on international law.”

Even so, when the cameras are off, American officials speak privately about their French colleagues with a tone of eye-popping exasperation. French analysts express frustration with what they see as the Biden administration's high-handed approach to transatlantic leadership.

Charles A. Kupchan, a former European adviser to President Barack Obama and now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that “the mess that the United States finds itself in politically right now” is forcing European leaders to calibrate “whether they can or should put all their marbles in the United States basket.”

This is especially true for Ukraine, which former President Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential election, did not support in its war with Russia. “In some ways,” Kupchan said, “there may have been too much U.S. leadership because if it were to happen that the United States withdrew from Ukraine and Europe had to fill the gap, it wouldn't be easy.”

In an interview with Time magazine published last week, Biden reflected on an initial conversation with Macron after beating Trump. “I said, 'Well, America is back,'” Biden recounted. “Macron looked at me and said: 'For how long? How long?'”

Behind this question lies another: how much American presence in Europe does Macron's France really want?

The differences were highlighted most prominently in February, when Macron shocked both American and European allies by offering the possibility of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, something Biden adamantly ruled out for fear of turning the war into a direct conflict with a nuclear-powered Russia.

“There are no American soldiers at war in Ukraine,” Biden declared in his State of the Union address a few days after Macron's test balloon. “And I'm determined to keep it that way.”

Macron, on the other hand, apparently is not. Speaking to reporters Friday after a meeting in Paris with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he asked: “Is this an escalation when Ukraine asks us to train soldiers mobilized on its sovereign soil? NO.”

The French intention appears to be to send a group of military trainers to Ukraine in the near future, if possible as part of a broader European effort. Regarding the Ukrainian proposal to carry out the training on its territory, Macron said: “We will use the next few days to finalize the broadest possible coalition to join Ukraine's request.”

Macron had previously offered to train a brigade of 4,500 Ukrainian soldiers. It was unclear where this would take place, although such training has taken place outside of Ukraine in the past. Officials close to Macron said no announcement of sending trainers was imminent, apparently signaling that this would not take place during Biden's stay, which would almost certainly appear provocative.

The two leaders are a study in contrasts. Biden, 81, has spent more than half a century in Washington and is a creature of the American establishment who passionately believes in the U.S.-led order created after World War II. When France opposed the American invasion of Iraq, he was furious, seeing an unacceptable act of defiance from a country that owed its freedom to the United States.

Macron, 46, is a restless 21st-century president, eager to reassert French leadership on the European stage and willing to provoke friends with challenging ideas and statements, suggesting in 2019 that NATO had suffered “brain death”.

Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to Washington, said the two presidents differ not only on theoretical Western troops on the ground, but also on where and how the war should be ended.

“An explanation between the two heads of state is more necessary than ever,” Araud said. “Not only is the conduct of the war at stake, but also the prospect of negotiations after November 5 if Biden is re-elected. What are the West's real war objectives beyond the empty rhetoric about Ukraine's 1991 borders?

The chemistry between the two leaders generally seemed good. “They get along very well personally,” said Matthias Matthijs, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

But points of tension remain, he said, not only over Ukraine, but also over Biden's signature Inflation Reduction Act that provides expansive subsidies for electric vehicles and other clean technologies. Europeans consider the measure unfair competition.

France is also frustrated by the degree of American support for Israel in the war on Gaza. The complaints center on the perceived failure of the United States to halt the Israeli advance in Rafah and rein in Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. But they also include Washington's strong rejection, for now, of recognizing Palestinian statehood and its hesitations about how Gaza should be governed after the war.

“Arab states have never been so involved and so ready to normalize relations with Israel if a credible path towards a Palestinian state is established,” said a senior French official who, in line with diplomatic practice, called for the anonymity. “It's frustrating”.

France has not recognized a Palestinian state, as four other European countries did last month, but in May voted at the United Nations to support Palestine's inclusion as a full member of the organization. The United States voted against.

However, with the Biden administration, the differences may be muted, even as Trump's possible return to the White House in November causes extreme anxiety in France and elsewhere in Europe. The two leaders have in common that each is trying to push back right-wing nationalist forces at home, embodied by Trump and Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Rally party.

While president, Trump treated allies with contempt. He recently made it clear that he hasn't changed his mind on the matter, saying he would be fine if Russia attacked NATO members who don't spend enough on defense.

Condemning such isolationism, Biden said of Ukraine in Normandy that “we are not leaving.” The objective of his rhetoric was clear: his opponent in the November 5 elections. As for Macron, speaking in English, he told the American veterans: “You are at home, if I may say so.”

It reminded us that when it comes to the United States and France, regular skirmishes do not undo a century-old bond.

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