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Opinion: Kamala Harris' Paris trip puts a band-aid on deteriorating US-France relations

David A. AndelmanDavid A. Andelman
More than a month after a firestorm broke out between the United States and France over the Biden administration’s colossally ill-considered torpedoing of a major French-Australian submarine deal, the vice president landed in Paris to try to patch things up. And so far, it’s working.
Harris and French President Emmanuel Macron seemed delighted to see each other as they grasped arms in a Covid-conscious greeting outside the Élysée presidential palace Wednesday. “I can tell you French people are extremely proud to have you here,” Macron said at the start of their bilateral meeting. Their first tête-à-tête ran so long that aides tried to intervene and wrap up the meeting. Macron also gave Harris a tour of the building, pointing out the desk of France’s first modern president Charles de Gaulle, who had his own prickly relationship with the United States.
The next morning, at a grand ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, celebrating France’s unknown soldier and Hubert Germain, France’s last great World War II resistance fighter, who died last month at the age of 101, national television cameras focused on Harris, casting her image on a jumbotron screen overlooking the ceremony several times.
Later in the afternoon, the two sat side-by-side, carefully masked, in the front row of the Paris Peace Forum, chatting continuously, though out of earshot of any microphones. In her speech about inequality, she urged, “Let us not be burdened by what has been, let us focus on what can be. And let us realize a better future together.”
Although she wasn’t commenting directly on the relationship between the US and France, this has been the repeated refrain of her visit — to look forward rather than back.
Your rights could be taken away rapidly. I know because it happened to meYour rights could be taken away rapidly. I know because it happened to me
Macron later singled out Harris in his speech, saying, “I am very happy, Madam Vice President, to have the United States back in the club of multilateralism. This is wonderful news … Because I believe this is the rightful place for the United States of America.”
Still, whether all this bonhomie will be enough to patch over deeply frayed relations between the two countries dating back to Presidents Barack Obama and François Hollande, remains to be seen. What is apparent, however, is that the two leaders are touting their partnership on everything from defense to supply chain disruptions — with the goal of making a mark at home as Macron faces the upcoming presidential election in April and Harris tries to burnish her foreign policy bona fides amid flagging approval ratings and infighting within the Democratic Party.
Clearly, both Macron and Harris hope they may be able to turn the page on past issues. “Leadership is partnership,” Macron said when he first met US President Joe Biden in England for the G7 summit in June. That was, of course, the very moment the United States was negotiating the submarine agreement with Australia and the UK, killing a 50-year pact with France, all without a single word of it to Macron or the French (Biden has since acknowledged the US was “clumsy” in its treatment of France).
Regardless of how Macron really feels, Harris’ visit has also been a chance to distinguish himself from his far-right opponent in the elections next April. Macron is expected to run for reelection, although one of his senior advisers pointed out to me that the incumbent President has not yet formally announced his intention to seek a second term.
Like it or not, America, this is what you mean to Africans like meLike it or not, America, this is what you mean to Africans like me
Either way, the far-right firebrand, Eric Zemmour, has already positioned himself as Macron’s leading challenger, throwing down the gauntlet, particularly with respect to France’s relations with the United States. In response to the last conciliatory meeting Macron had with Biden in Rome on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Zemmour said he had “never seen such a humiliation.” One of Macron’s counselors, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity to comment more frankly on the state of French politics, told me in an email that the President “does not make decisions (on) the role of France in the world” based on the views of Zemmour who, she added, “is very far from the values the President believes in and fights for.”
A White House official said that the invitation for Harris to visit Paris came from Macron before the submarine imbroglio. Still, the timing was especially opportune for both leaders. With Harris seemingly fading from the domestic squabbles over Biden’s agenda and Macron’s hovering at around 24% going into the first round of elections (still the highest among any of his challengers), it’s not hard to see a kindred view of this opportunity.
“If we want to be able to compete, we have to be good partners; we have to show up. America is a global leader,” the White House briefer told reporters on Wednesday. And Macron’s counselor echoed that sentiment, telling me, “Our friendship (with the US) is robust, we are close allies, and finally we have many things to do together when it comes to global issues and regional crisis issues as partners.”
Still, it’s been a difficult time all around for US-France relations, the foundations of which have been eroded over many years. It’s quite clear that relationships that have been subject to the strain we’ve seen in recent years between the United States and France will take some time to heal. But consistency is essential. Showing up is a good first step.
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