When President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron walked into a small holding room on the margins of the Global Fund conference in New York this fall, their aides had only allotted 10 minutes for the two men to briefly touch base.
But sitting in the cramped room at 538 Park Avenue with a handful of aides, the two leaders ignored repeated attempts by US and French officials to end the meeting and usher the two men to the ballroom where several heads of state were waiting to begin the conference. About 45 minutes later, they finally relented.
“They just kept talking and talking and talking. And so you eventually had protocol people from both sides just continuing to step forward. I was actually wondering if they were about to physically grab them and drag them out of the room,” a senior administration official said, describing the meeting on the condition of anonymity. “I think if they had been left to their own devices, they probably would have sat there for another two hours and just kept talking.”
The September meeting typified the close working relationship that aides say has emerged between the two men. And it belied the fact that it fell almost exactly one year after French-American relations sunk to their lowest point in decades, with Macron taking the extraordinary step of recalling his ambassador to Washington for consultations over a US-Australia submarine deal that blindsided the French and cost them a multi-billion dollar defense contract.
Those tumultuous weeks are now far from the minds of either men or their respective administrations as Macron touches down in Washington on Tuesday evening for an official state visit, the first time Biden has bestowed that honor on any leader since taking office nearly two years ago.
The visit will put on display the critical alliance and the increasingly close working relationship between the two men, brought even closer in the nine months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, according to US and French officials. And it will be an opportunity for the pair – who both place a premium on personal relationships as a tool of international diplomacy – to deepen their personal relationship as well, with a private dinner with their spouses on Wednesday night ahead of the lavish state dinner the following day.
Biden and Macron have met several times on the sidelines of international conferences and speak regularly over the phone to coordinate the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – including at least seven one-on-one calls so far this year and a dozen joint calls with other leaders. During the midterm campaign, Biden frequently invoked an anecdote involving Macron to make his case about the importance of protecting democracy.
And when Biden turned 80 earlier this month, Macron sent the US president a handwritten birthday card, a US and French official said, wishing Biden a happy birthday and congratulating him on his granddaughter’s wedding, which took place the same weekend.
Above all, senior administration officials indicated that France’s selection for Biden’s first state visit was intended to highlight the premium Biden has placed on the US core alliances, his view of the importance of democracies in a world being tested by rising autocracies and France’s central role in both of those principles – both as the US oldest ally and Macron’s starring role in its defining battles.
“I mean, 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,” said John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications. “President Macron has been the dynamic leader inside the G7, particularly there in Europe. And so the President felt that this was exactly the right and the most appropriate country to start with for state visits.”
Other natural candidates to highlight the US core alliances in Europe have become less obvious choices. The United Kingdom has been riven by political turmoil and Germany became a lesser-known quantity on the international stage following the departure of longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, Macron is the longest-serving European leader within the G7 and has sought to establish himself as Europe’s preeminent head of state.
“France has in many respects jumped to the head of the queue and become America’s go-to partner when it comes to advancing transatlantic cooperation,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council. “And I think that’s in part because of Macron himself, who leans into Europe’s role in the world and who in comparison with most other European leaders is quite active and quite ambitious.”
US and French officials do not expect the visit to yield any major deliverables, but both sides see it as an opportunity for the two countries to deepen their partnership on a slew of global challenges, from the war in Ukraine to policy toward China and the challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear program. The two sides will also advance working group discussions which were launched in the wake of last year’s submarine affair to step up cooperation on space, cyberspace and energy issues.
“We’re in an extremely strong place with France. There has been a tremendous convergence of our policy on all the big ticket items,” a senior administration official said.
Ukraine will be “front and center” in Biden and Macron’s discussions, the official said, from coordinating their efforts to supply Ukraine’s military, to continuing to punish Russia for its invasion and mitigating the economic and energy fallout on the West. Those discussions come as Europe braces for the stinging effects high energy costs and tight supply will have and as Ukraine’s recent battlefield advances have ratcheted European calls for negotiations with Russia.
The US and Europe’s policy in the Indo-Pacific and toward China is expected to be a close second, following Biden’s recent meeting with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 in Indonesia and as Macron prepares to make a trip to Beijing early next year.
“The two presidents are going to want to compare notes on that,” a senior administration official said. “Our views on China are not identical, but I think there is a strong view that we should be speaking from a common script in response to China.”
While the US and France are closely aligned on both big ticket items, that’s not to say there aren’t also areas of disagreement and divergence. As a difficult winter approaches, calls in Europe for Ukraine to move toward negotiations have begun to grow louder and concerns are emerging about preserving Western unity as the war drags on. On China, Biden will look for Macron to link arms with him in confronting the country over its trade practices and military moves in the Indo-Pacific.
Perhaps the biggest point of tension will be over billions of dollars in electric vehicle subsidies included in the Inflation Reduction Act, which applies only to those manufactured in North America. Macron has slammed the measure as protectionist and French officials said he intends to raise the issue in meetings with Biden and congressional leaders. The Biden administration has stood up a working group with the European Union to address the issue, but the text of the law limits the administration’s ability to act.
Macron’s forward-leaning stance on the issue underscores another dynamic of the Biden-Macron relationship: despite the closeness of the relationship and overarching agreement on top global issues, Macron has not been shy about carving out his own space on the global stage – including by pursuing and maintaining backchannel communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin – and publicly disagreeing with Biden at times.
In March, Macron warned against the risk of escalation after Biden called Putin a “butcher” who “cannot remain in power.” The next month, he warned again about an “escalation of words,” disagreeing with Biden’s decision to call Russian war crimes in Ukraine a genocide. And in October, Macron urged “prudence” after Biden warned of the risk of nuclear “Armageddon.”
Macron’s approach has rankled US officials at times, but officials and experts say the free-wheeling nature of the comments point to a relationship with Biden – and the US – built on more than just personal connection.
Macron had also secured the first state visit of President Donald Trump’s term in office, after pursuing a charm offensive that left some calling the relationship a “bromance.” But that “bromance” struggled to survive as Trump repeatedly cast doubt on the US commitment to the NATO alliance, leading to a war of words between the two men.
Now, both sides know they have a partner fundamentally committed to the alliance – tactical and stylistic differences notwithstanding – particularly in the face of the war in Ukraine.
“The irritants in the relationship are completely overwhelmed by partnership and solidarity,” said Kupchan, the former NSC senior European affairs director under President Barack Obama. “I think with Biden, (the French) know they have an Atlanticist. And they have someone who has transatlantic partnership in his DNA.”