WASHINGTON – French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Washington on Tuesday for the first state visit of Joe Biden's presidency — a revival of diplomatic pageantry that had been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Biden-Macron relationship had a choppy start. Macron briefly recalled France's ambassador to the United States last year after the White House announced a deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia, undermining a contract for France to sell diesel-powered submarines.
But the relationship has turned around with Macron emerging as one of Biden's most forward-facing European allies in the Western response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This week's visit — it will include Oval Office talks, a glitzy dinner, a news conference and more — comes at a critical moment for both leaders.
The leaders have a long agenda for their Thursday meeting at the White House, including Iran's nuclear program, China's increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and growing concerns about security and stability in Africa's Sahel region, according to U.S. and French officials. But front and center during their Oval Office meeting will be Russia's war in Ukraine, as both Biden and Macron work to maintain economic and military support for Kyiv as it tries to repel Russian forces.
The visit also comes as both Washington and Paris are keeping an eye on China after protests broke out last weekend in several mainland cities and Hong Kong over Beijing's “zero COVID” strategy. At a red carpet arrival ceremony after landing in Washington on Tuesday evening, Macron ignored a shouted question from a reporter about whether he and Biden planned to discuss the China protests — the biggest show of public dissent in China in decades.
In Washington, Republicans are set to take control of the House, where GOP leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday following a meeting with Biden and fellow congressional leaders again vowed that Republicans will not write a “blank check” for Ukraine. Across the Atlantic, Macron's efforts to keep Europe united will be tested by the mounting costs of supporting Ukraine in the nine-month war and as Europe battles rising energy prices that threaten to derail the post-pandemic economic recovery.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Monday described Macron as the “dynamic leader” of America's oldest ally while explaining Biden's decision to honor the French president with the first state visit of his presidency.
The U.S. tradition of honoring foreign heads of state dates back to Ulysses S. Grant, who hosted King David Kalakaua of the Kingdom of Hawaii for a more than 20-course White House dinner, but the tradition has been on hold since 2019 because of COVID-19 concerns.
“If you look at what’s going on in Ukraine, look at what’s going on in the Indo Pacific and the tensions with China, France is really at the center of all those things,” Kirby said. “And so the president felt that this was exactly the right and the most appropriate country to start with for state visits.”
Macron was also Republican Donald Trump's pick as the first foreign leader to be honored with a state visit during his term. The 2018 state visit included a jaunt by the two leaders to Mount Vernon, the Virginia estate of George Washington, America’s founding president.
French government spokesperson Olivier Veran said Tuesday that Macron’s second state visit is “a strong symbol of the partnership between France and the United States.” It shows “very strong ties” between the countries and comes at a moment where the world is faced with important international issues, including the war in Ukraine, food security, climate and energy, he said.
Veran added that there is a need for “re-synchronizing" the agendas of the European Union and the United States to face crises, especially on energy and rising prices.
Macron has a packed day of meetings and appearances in and around Washington on Wednesday — including a visit to NASA headquarters with Vice President Kamala Harris and talks with Biden administration officials on nuclear energy.
On Thursday, Macron will have his private meeting with Biden followed by a joint news conference and visits to the State Department and Capitol Hill before Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, are feted at the state dinner. Grammy winner Jon Batiste is to provide the entertainment. The White House prepared for days for Macron's arrival, setting up a large tent for the festivities on the South Lawn and decorating light poles bordering the White House complex with French flags.
Macron will head to New Orleans on Friday, where he is to announce plans to expand programming to support French language education in U.S. schools, according to French officials.
For all of that, there are still areas of tension in the U.S.-French relationship.
Biden has steered clear of embracing Macron’s calls on Ukraine to resume peace talks with Russia, something Biden has repeatedly said is a decision solely in the hands of Ukraine's leadership.
Perhaps more pressing are differences that French and other European Union leaders have raised about Biden's Inflation Reduction Act, sweeping legislation passed in August that includes historic spending on climate and energy initiatives. Macron and other leaders have been rankled by a provision in the bill that provides tax credits to consumers who buy electric vehicles manufactured in North America.
The French president, in making his case against the subsidies, will underscore that it's crucial for “Europe, like the U.S., to come out stronger ... not weaker” as the world emerges from the tumult of the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, according to a senior French government official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to preview private talks.
Macron earlier this month said the subsidies could upend the “level playing field” on trade with the EU and called aspects of the Biden legislation “unfriendly."
The White House, meanwhile, plans to counter that the legislation goes a long way in helping the U.S. meet global efforts to curb climate change. The president and aides will also impress on the French that the legislation will also create new opportunities for French companies and others in Europe, according to a senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to preview the talks.
Macron's visit comes about 14 months after the relationship hit its nadir after the U.S. announced its deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia.
After the announcement of the deal, which had been negotiated in secret, France briefly recalled its ambassador to Washington. A few weeks later Macron met Biden in Rome ahead of the Group of 20 summit, where the U.S. president sought to patch things up by acknowledging his administration had been “clumsy” in how it handled the issue.
Macron's visit with Harris to NASA headquarters on Wednesday will offer the two countries a chance to spotlight their cooperation on space.
France in June signed the Artemis Accords, a blueprint for space cooperation supporting NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon by 2024 and to launch a historic human mission to Mars.
The same month, the U.S. joined a French initiative to develop new tools for adapting to climate change, the Space for Climate Observatory.
Corbet reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed reporting.