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French President Emmanuel Macron whispers into US counterpart Joe Biden's year; the two presidents are touching each other on the shoulder and upper back
Macron's visit will reaffirm ties between the two longtime alliesImage: Susan Walsh/AP Photo/picture alliance

France and the US: Macron aims to show European unity

Lisa Louis in Paris
November 30, 2022

French President Emmanuel Macron is on a state visit to Washington. This week's visit should mark the end of a quarrel between the two countries, and could also underscore a certain Franco-German entente.

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French President Emmanuel Macron's trip to Washington this week may not just be a show of Franco-American unity, said an Elysee spokesman in a pre-trip briefing with reporters.

"This is an important visit for us, the focus of which will not be on leadership but partnership," said the spokesman last week. "We will also advocate for Franco-German projects and European interests."

Macron's trip will be the first official state visit under US President Joe Biden since Biden took office in 2021. And that kind of visit comes with a certain amount of glamor. The French and US national hymns will be played. Army personnel will, according to tradition, fire off 21 cannon shots. And military chiefs will salute both heads of state.

"Macron's trip will close the unpleasant chapter of the so-called AUKUS deal — even though that doesn't mean the episode will be completely forgotten," Yves Boyer, a specialist in trans-Atlantic relations and professor emeritus at Paris-based Ecole Polytechnique, told DW.

Through AUKUS, sealed in September 2021, the US and the United Kingdom agreed to help Australia develop and deploy nuclear submarines. The deal brought an existing submarine contract between Australia and France's shipbuilder Naval Group to an abrupt halt — an unpleasant surprise for the French government.

France blindsided by US-Australian submarine deal: Sonia Phalnikar reports

From 'stab in the back' to 'oldest ally'

Former Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the deal "a stab in the back," and France temporarily withdrew its ambassadors to the US and Australia.

But the tone has calmed in the past year, and "Macron will now be able to go back to France being the Americans' oldest ally," said Boyer, referring to ties that go back to when France recognized US independence in 1778, and French help during the American War of Independence between 1775 and 1781.

Boyer added that this week's visit would include a private meeting with Biden on Thursday and discussions on space and nuclear research, areas in which both countries have confidential cooperation agreements. But, he added, Macron will also address the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, acting as the unofficial representative of the EU, which aims to "minimize the impact of that protectionist legislation."

In August, the US Congress voted through the $430-billion (€416-billion) package, which includes tax cuts and some $369 billion in subsidies meant to benefit companies active in the climate and sustainable development sector. Europe largely sees the IRA as protectionist, with the legislation meant to lure investment back to the United States and incite US citizens to buy American, for example, when it comes to electric cars.

A closeup of a Tesla car charging port
The Inflation Reduction Act includes billions in funding for climate spending, including electric carsImage: Frank Hoermann/SvenSimon/picture alliance

An 'extraordinary' show of unity

In response, France and Germany last week agreed to more cooperation on industrial policy, labeling their move as a "strong European response to the IRA."

"It's astonishing that Germany and France managed to come to such an agreement, as Germany traditionally values free trade while France is more open to protectionism," Yann Wernert, a policy fellow at Berlin-based Jacques Delors Centre think tank, told DW.

"Such a consensus is a good signal for Europe, especially as the Franco-German relationship has recently clearly been marked by tensions," he added.

France and Germany, the EU's largest economies, are seen as the "engine" of the bloc. Yet they often represent divergent standpoints within the EU. Once these two find common ground, other EU members can more easily align behind that compromise.

France and Germany still recovering from spat

Over the past few months, though, that bilateral relationship has appeared rattled. The quarrel between the two countries reached its pinnacle when a Franco-German ministerial meeting, supposed to take place once a year according to current bilateral treaties, was canceled — or, officially, pushed back to January.

"Germany now seems to have made a huge step toward France regarding the IRA, and recognized that strategic aspects — and not only economic ones — play an important role when it comes to international relations," said Wernert.

Germany's economy strongly relies on exports, with the country following the motto "change through trade," especially with regards to China and Russia. But that policy has met with strong criticism, especially since Russia's invasion of Ukraine underlined Germany's hazardous dependence on Russian gas.

Germany using more coal instead of Russian gas

'In times of crisis, unity is key' for NATO

Another showcase of opposing Franco-German views has been the countries' attitudes toward the NATO military alliance.

"The French press often keeps a certain distance to NATO, while Germany is closer to the US and more wary of trans-Atlantic estrangement," said Wernert. "Germany is more prudent when it comes to European defense initiatives and does not want to risk a split with NATO."

Macron, by contrast, has in the past been pushing for Europe to take up its own defense, causing an uproar when he called the security alliance "brain-dead" during his first term in power.

But even that gulf now seems to have narrowed, and Macron's visit will emphasize that development, believes Nicole Bacharan, a historian and specialist in trans-Atlantic relations at the Paris-based National Foundation for Political Science.

"Putin's war has resuscitated NATO — it's obvious that we need it. After all, 300,000 additional NATO troops will soon be based in Europe," she told DW.

Bacharan added that Washington, meanwhile, also recognized the importance of the American-European alliance through Macron's visit.

"In times of crisis, unity is key," she stressed.

US President Joe Biden, left, speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron prior to a round table meeting
Biden (left) and Macron met with NATO leaders in Brussels for crisis talks after Russia launched its invasion of UkraineImage: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo/picture alliance

During a meeting with Macron in Rome in September 2021, Biden had for the first time officially accepted that a European defense initiative would be important and complementary to NATO.

Camille Grand hopes this was only the beginning. NATO's assistant secretary general for defense investment until recently, he's now with the Brussels-based think tank European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Biden could, for example, say that a duplication of NATO structures on a European level is acceptable — which, so far, has always been ruled out," he told DW.

Macron will have to strike a balance

Meanwhile, Macron will have to perform a balancing act regarding the Indo-Pacific region, said Grand.

"He will have to walk a fine line between the tough American approach, especially when it comes to China, and Germany's more economically oriented view," he explained.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz faced harsh criticism for his recent visit to China. France would have wanted for the two heads of state to travel to Beijing together, and not right after the Chinese party congress that consolidated President Xi Jinping's power.

And yet, to a certain extent, Germany's economic interests in Asia need to be taken into account.

"Macron will have to show that he understands China can't just be seen as an adversary," Grand said. Otherwise, that might bring new discord into the Franco-German relationship.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler

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