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France and America—Old Allies Confront New Threats

William Drozdiak

The presidents of France and the United States have often struggled with profound disparities in personality and policies behind a veneer of allied amity dating back to 1776 when France backed the American fight for independence from Britain. As they have discovered over the past four years, Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron are no different than their predecessors.

Biden has been a pillar of the American political establishment ever since he first entered the Senate more than fifty years ago. Macron, who at 46 is thirty-five years younger, became president in 2017 as a political neophyte in his first-ever run for office at the head of an upstart centrist movement that shattered traditional mainstream parties on the left and right, the Socialists and the Gaullists.

Their rapport got off to a rocky start when France lost a $60 billion submarine contract with Australia after the United States undercut the deal by promising to build faster nuclear-powered vessels for Canberra, inflicting a huge blow to French economic interests. The US formed a new Indo-Pacific alliance with Britain and Australia that pointedly left out France, which maintains five military bases in the region to protect nearly two million of its citizens living in Polynesia. In response, Macron abruptly withdrew France’s ambassador from Washington—a serious diplomatic rebuke almost unthinkable among allies. The rift was only healed more than a year later after Biden publicly admitted that the White House had acted clumsily by mistreating America’s oldest friend.

Since then, the Biden administration has sought to make amends. Macron was treated to the first state dinner hosted at the White House by Biden in December 2022 in which he was showered with lavish accolades for the close strategic partnership their two governments have developed over the years, despite their occasional clashes over policy.

In return, Macron rolled out the red carpet for Biden last week during a state visit that commemorated the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings in which American soldiers scaled the cliffs of the Normandy coast to launch the offensive that ultimately resulted in the defeat of Nazi Germany. In his welcoming remarks, Macron told Biden that “the bond of blood shed for liberty” that ties France to the United States can never be broken. The American president, for his part, declared that France is not just a strong ally but the “first friend” of the United States.

At a sumptuous four-course state dinner at the Élysée Palace, Macron was effusive in his celebration of more than two centuries of French-American partnership. “United we stand, divided we fall,” Macron said in his toast to Biden. “Allied we are, and allied we will stay.”

Yet amid the warm bonhomie and alliance solidarity, Biden and Macron could not hide lingering differences on several important subjects, including support for Ukraine, how to stop the war in Gaza, and Europe’s aspirations to assume greater traction on the world stage in an era of renewed great power rivalry.

Biden has openly disagreed with Macron’s expressed willingness to send French soldiers to help train Ukrainians close to the front lines with Russia and to relax conditions on Western weapons sent to Ukraine so they can be used to retaliate against Russian territory.

French officials said Macron and Biden reached an understanding that frozen Russian assets held in the West could be used to finance a $50 billion aid package for Ukraine that has been held up for several months. The arrangement is expected to be unveiled at the G-7 summit meeting of leading Western industrial nations in Puglia, Italy from June 13 to 15.

In contrast to Biden’s reticence to challenge Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza, Macron has not shied away from criticizing Israel for failing to open all checkpoints to humanitarian aid deliveries. France also has shown sympathy for recognizing Palestinian statehood, which the United States opposes in the absence of a negotiated settlement with Israel.

France has also objected strongly to the Biden administration’s trade policies, notably the Inflation Reduction Act which boosts support and subsidies for American companies that penalize European Union competitors in ways that the EU says violates global trading rules.

For these reasons, Macron has repeatedly insisted that the European Union needs to adopt a posture of “strategic autonomy” that would lessen its economic and security dependence on the United States. His frequent comment that France and Europe must avoid becoming a “vassal” of the United States is often perceived in Washington as a brazen rejection of American leadership of the Western alliance.

Yet during Biden’s visit, the two presidents found common ground in their determination to support democratic values against the onslaught of autocratic leaders abroad and demagogic opponents at home. They both appealed for their compatriots to draw hope and inspiration from the courageous example of D-Day veterans by standing up to modern-day threats to freedom and democracy.

In the presence of other allied leaders and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Biden and Macron drew strong comparisons to the heroism of the D-Day landings with Ukraine’s defense of its homeland against Russia’s unprovoked invasion. Indeed, Zelenskyy’s presence at the Normandy events served as a vivid reminder of the thematic link between Ukraine’s persistence in fighting for its liberty and independence with the kind of valor and sacrifice shown by the allies in repelling the Nazi occupation.

During his five-day visit to France—the longest Biden has undertaken as president—he made repeated allusions to present-day threats to democratic freedoms posed by populist nationalists and demagogues among Western nations that have gained a strong following among discontented sectors of the population. 

Calling his trip “the most remarkable I have ever made,” Biden seemed visibly moved by the 21-gun salute he received at the Normandy American cemetery that cast smoke over the 9,388 white marble headstones where US soldiers are buried. He said that the bravery demonstrated by the American leadership of the D-Day landings served as a reminder that alliances make the United States stronger, calling it “a lesson that I pray we Americans never forget.”

Just before leaving France, Biden paid his respects at an American military cemetery that Trump skipped visiting when he was president. Biden laid a wreath in honor of more than 2,200 soldiers who fought in World War I and now lie buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery about an hour outside Paris.  At Aisne-Marne, Biden said the trip “surprised me how much it awakened my sense of why it’s so valuable to have these alliances. Why it’s so critical. That’s the way you stop wars, not start wars.”

Biden’s reaffirmation of the need to maintain alliance unity in the struggle between democracy and autocracy was welcomed by Macron and elsewhere in Europe, where the prospect of a change of administration in November has spread fears the US might abandon Ukraine and withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Macron has warned that the Western alliance might not be able to survive such steps, which is why he has called for urgent action so Europe can assume greater control over its own destiny. Biden recalled the first time he met with NATO leaders early in his presidency, when he declared that “America is back.” He said that Macron immediately asked him, “But for how long? How long?”

Just hours after Biden’s departure, Macron was stunned by the results of the European Parliament elections which showed the far-right National Rally party, led by his nemesis Marine Le Pen, had scored an overwhelming victory by capturing 31.5 of the vote. Macron’s own centrist alliance won less than 15 percent.

Macron went on national television and shocked the nation by calling for early elections for a new National Assembly, with the first round set for June 30th. He said he could not stand idly by in the wake of a major victory by Le Pen’s party and urged French voters to consider the ramifications of allowing a far-right xenophobic party to gain power. “The rise of nationalists and demagogues is a danger for our nation and for Europe,” Macron said.

It was yet another example of Macron’s penchant to gamble by betting the house in the face of adversity. If the Rassemblement National Party achieves a similar score in the legislative elections, it could lay claim to control of France’s next government. Macron can still rule as president until 2027—when he will step down because of term limits—but having to do so with a prime minister imposed by Le Pen at the head of a right-wing government could mean the collapse of his ambitions for France and Europe.

By the end of 2024, political analysts predict that ten of the EU’s 27 member states could be governed by coalitions backed by far right or populist nationalist parties. The results of the EU elections—and Macron’s call for snap elections—show why this visit focused well beyond current bilateral relations and on the transatlantic future.

About the Author

William Drozdiak

William Drozdiak

Global Fellow, Global Europe Program;
Author "The Last President of Europe: Emmanuel Macron’s Race to Revive France and Save the World"
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more