Emmanuel Macron has just completed the first major state visit to the US since the pandemic.
As central pillars of Nato and the broader western, democratic alliance, France and the US are historic allies. However, there was a sense of tension ahead of this particular visit, mainly because of concerns that a trade war between the US and Europe could be triggered by president Joe Biden’s protectionist Inflation Reduction Act. This offers subsidies to green industries based in the US, which Macron fears could cause European companies to relocate.
It seems Macron has eked out some concessions from Biden on this issue, who made a verbal commitment at a joint press conference to re-think his planned subsidies. The US president claimed it was never his intention to “exclude” Europe.
Several other global, geostrategic tensions have also been resolved during the visit, which has turbocharged France-US relations. The warming of relations were particularly needed after the strained months that have followed the Aukus submarine deal between the US, Australia and the UK. The creation of this alliance that cost France a massive contractual arrangement with Australia and was apparently announced without Paris receiving any forewarning.
Nato and the European Army
Other European leaders will have been watching closely as the two talked security. Macron’s thoughts on the matter have caused concern amongst France’s allies of late. He has enthusiastically supported the idea of an EU “army” as a European rival to Nato and claimed the latter was becoming a “brain dead alliance”.
However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the landscape of Europe’s security strategy among allies forever. The end of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship in Germany and the rise of Olaf Scholz meant Macron was left without a partner to build his vision of EU security. When Scholz failed to take a clear stance against Russia when the invasion first happened, it revealed that Europe, when it came to the crunch, was very far from being in a position to usurp Nato.
Nato relies on the combined power of the UK, US and French armed forces, three of the most advanced globally. And while France’s uneasiness with the alliance dates back as far as the 1960s, recent events mean Macron travelled to Washington a humbled man.
Coming out of the visit are both renewed commitments to Nato’s roles in the current Ukraine war, but interestingly also an acknowledgement that a “blank cheque” for perpetual conflict in Ukraine is unsustainable.
Biden announced during the visit that he is willing to discuss a settlement with Putin directly. This is a huge shift, even if potential talks come with quite strict conditions.
A range of security concerns push France and the US together. The eviction of the French from anti-Jihadist operations in Mali, to be replaced by Russian-backed “Wagner” mercenaries will have made both Paris and Washington uneasy.
The thought of Moscow holding the keys to stability in the geo-strategic Sahel region of north Africa is not an appealing one, and the two presidents’ joint statement after their meeting renewed commitments from both sides to maintain cooperation on African security.
In the wake of this visit, France appears to have moved more towards the US position on China. This is significant since Macron and Biden have not seen eye-to-eye here for some time. Macron caused a stir during a recent speech in Bangkok when he described the US and China as “two elephants” at risk of creating “a big problem for the rest of the jungle”.
This comes out of Biden’s muscular position on China. The president has imposed some of the toughest trade sanctions on China in a generation with his restrictions on technology exports.
Historically, France has taken a soft approach towards China. Recently, Macron suggested that China could play a mediating role in the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
However, Macron and Biden’s joint statement takes a harder line. It explicitly raises concerns about human rights abuses and the status of Taiwan. It even goes as far as accusing China of challenging the rules-based international order. It seems that in return for some concessions on trade, Biden has won over Macron when it comes to China.
Like every leader the world over, Biden and Macron are particularly concerned about energy at the moment. Even without the pressure caused by the Ukraine war on European states’ energy sectors, France is in a bad place. While Macron hopes to promote France’s nuclear power expertise in the US, he has to do so when a large proportion of French nuclear power stations are offline for maintenance.
The US took a bold decision after 9/11 to embrace fracking and new energy extraction technologies in the “shale revolution” that has lead the US to become a global energy superpower and net exporter. This has been key to aiding Europe’s energy supplies in the face of Russian gas being removed from European energy markets.
In a move likely to be seen as a major coup for the French president given recent domestic difficulties with the French nuclear fleet, the visit has resulted in a commitment to the deepening of energy cooperation.
This binds the two historic allies even closer together on an issue of fundamental importance to France. But it also sends a strong signal to the rest of the world at a time when energy supplies are under extreme pressure. Macron will go back to Paris surprisingly satisfied with his trip to Washington.