Macron Hosts Biden in Paris, Honoring a Not Always Easy Bond

In the sunlight of Normandy, before the surviving American veterans who eight decades ago helped turn the tide of the war against Hitler, President Emmanuel Macron of France spoke this past week of the “bond of blood shed for liberty” that ties his country to the United States.

It is a bond that goes all the way back to the founding of the United States in 1776 and the decisive French support for American independence against the British. Tempestuous, often strained as France bristles at American postwar leadership in Europe, the ties between Paris and Washington are nonetheless 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 that friendship. But it illustrates its double-edged nature. French gratitude for American sacrifice as ever vies uneasily with Gaullist restiveness over any hint of subservience.

Those competing strands will form the backdrop of a lavish state dinner at the Élysée Palace on Saturday, when Mr. Macron will reciprocate the state visit that Mr. Biden hosted for him at the White House in December 2022, the first of his administration.

The toasts and bonhomie will not fully mask the tensions between Washington and Paris — over the war in Gaza, how best to support Ukraine and the unpredictable ways Mr. Macron tries to assert France’s independence from the United States.

No recent French president has been as insistent as Mr. Macron in declaring Europe’s need for “strategic autonomy” and insisting that it “should never be a vassal of the United States.” Yet he has stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Biden in seeing Ukraine’s fight for freedom against Russia as no less than a battle for European liberty, an extension of the fight for freedom that led allied forces to scale the cliffs of the Pointe du Hoc in 1944.

“You can’t help seeing the parallel,” Mr. Macron said this past week in a TV interview, portraying Ukraine as “a people confronted by a power I would not compare to Nazi Germany, as there is not the same ideology, but an imperialist power that has trampled on international law.”

Even so, when the cameras are off, American officials privately talk about their French counterparts with a tone of eye-rolling exasperation. French analysts express frustration at what they consider the Biden administration’s overbearing approach to trans-Atlantic leadership.

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

That applies particularly to Ukraine, which former President Donald J. Trump, the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee, has not supported in its war with Russia. “In some ways,” Mr. Kupchan said, “there may have been too much U.S. leadership because if it does come about that the U.S. steps back from Ukraine and Europe needs to fill the gap, that’s not going to be easy.”

In an interview with Time magazine posted this past week, Mr. Biden reflected on an early conversation with Mr. Macron after he beat Mr. Trump. “I said, ‘Well, America’s back,’” Mr. Biden recounted. “Macron looked at me, and he said: ‘For how long? For how long?’”

Behind that question lurked another: How much American presence in Europe does Mr. Macron’s France really want?

The differences were showcased most prominently in February when Mr. Macron shocked American and European allies alike by holding out the possibility of sending NATO troops into Ukraine, something Mr. Biden has flatly ruled out for fear of escalating the war into a direct conflict with a nuclear-powered Russia.

“There are no American soldiers at war in Ukraine,” Mr. Biden declared in his State of the Union address just days after Mr. Macron’s trial balloon. “And I am determined to keep it that way.”

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

Mr. 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 a “brain death.”

Even in the immediate run-up to Mr. Biden’s visit, there appeared to be some back-and-forth on the possibility of France sending military trainers to Ukraine. In his TV interview, Mr. Macron said that it was not a “taboo,” and that he believed sending such trainers to western Ukraine, rather than to combat zones in the east, was not an aggressive move that would lead to escalation with Russia.

Officials close to Mr. Macron said no announcement of such a decision was imminent. It almost certainly would not have pleased Mr. Biden.

Mr. Macron did, however, offer to train a 4,500-strong brigade of Ukrainian soldiers. Such troops are currently trained by Western instructors outside of Ukraine.

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

“An explanation between the two heads of state is more than ever necessary,” Mr. Araud said. “It is not only the conduct of the war at stake, but also the prospect of a negotiation after Nov. 5 if Biden is re-elected. What are the real war goals of the West beyond the empty rhetoric about the 1991 borders” of Ukraine?

The chemistry between the two leaders has generally seemed good. “They do 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 over the Inflation Reduction Act signed by Mr. Biden that provides expansive subsidies for electric vehicles and other clean technologies. The Europeans consider the measure unfair competition.

France has also been frustrated over the degree of American support for Israel in the war in Gaza. The complaints center on the perceived U.S. failure to stop the Israeli advance into Rafah and to rein in Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. But they also include Washington’s strong rejection for now of recognition of Palestinian statehood and its hesitations over 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 pathway to a Palestinian state is established,” said one senior French official who in line with diplomatic practice requested anonymity. “It is frustrating.”

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

Still, with the Biden administration, differences can be finessed, even as the possible return of Mr. Trump to the White House in November induces extreme anxiety in France and elsewhere in Europe. The two leaders have in common the fact that each of them is trying to fend off nationalist right-wing forces at home, embodied by Mr. Trump and Marine Le Pen, a leader of France’s far-right National Rally party.

While president, Mr. Trump treated allies with scorn. He recently made clear he has not changed his mind about them, saying he would be just fine if Russia attacked NATO members that do not spend enough on defense.

Condemning such isolationism, Mr. Biden said of Ukraine in Normandy that “we will not walk away.” The target of his rhetoric was clear: his opponent in the Nov. 5 election. As for Mr. Macron, speaking in English, he told the American veterans, “You are at home, if I may say.”

It was a reminder that when it comes to the United States and France, regular skirmishes do not undo a centennial bond.

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