Putting France-US Relations Back on Track

December 5, 2022

Last week President Macron paid a state visit to Washington, the first of the Biden administration.

In widely reported remarks, “France has jumped to the head of the queue,” said Professor Charles Kupchan, who was a senior adviser on European issues in the Obama White House. “The state visit is symbolically significant as the return of the trans-Atlantic relationship to the center of American strategy in the world, and it’s notable that the country getting the first nod is France, not Germany or Britain.”

And Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote, “Britain marginalized itself through Brexit, for which it has paid a heavy price, and Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, took office only last month. Olaf Scholz, the cautious German chancellor with whom Mr. Macron has an uneasy relationship, has not yet developed anything resembling the broad European authority of his predecessor, Angela Merkel.”

I believe President Biden’s desire to repair a damaged relationship also played a role in upgrading the visit.

It is worth remembering that on February 19, 2021, President Biden addressed the global community for the first time. At the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference, he defined the partnership between Europe and the US as the cornerstone of all that the West hopes to accomplish in the 21st century, just as it did in the 20th century. He said, “I know — I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined — determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.”

Six months later, the US Armed Forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, marking the end of two decades of war. Washington’s European allies could see this coming but were not happy for not being adequately consulted.

And two weeks later, on September 16, 2021, President Biden, Prime Ministers Morrison, and Johnson announced the creation of AUKUS, a new enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK, and the US.  Mr. Morrison said that the first major initiative of AUKUS will be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia. The announcement triggered a backlash from Paris. Because in 2016, Australia signed a contract with French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a new submarine fleet worth 40 billion dollars to replace its more than two decades-old Collins submarines. With AUKUS, that deal was gone.

In an interview, Foreign Minister Le Drian said, “It’s a stab in the back. We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed”.

To underline its frustration Paris recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra “for consultations”.

Five months later, Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine upending the post-Cold War European security order. Despite undercurrents, NATO allies displayed unprecedented solidarity.

President Macron, an advocate of European strategic autonomy and eager to emerge as the continent’s new leader engaged in a balancing act. While declaring that Russia fractured collective security with an act of aggression, invasion, and annexation, deliberately violated the Charter of the United Nations, he also said, “In this regard, our position is clear and it is in promoting this position that I have pursued dialogue with Russia – even before war broke out – throughout these past months. And I will continue to do so because that is how we will seek peace together, seeking peace through initiatives taken in the years and months before the conflict to avert it.” [i]

On October 7, President Macron said, “we must speak with prudence“, as he responded to earlier comments by U.S. President Joe Biden in which Biden said there was a risk of nuclear “Armageddon” in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We must speak with prudence when commenting on such matters,” Macron told reporters at the end of the European Union summit in Prague.  

In Washington, President Biden extended his guest all the hospitality to put the AUKUS episode behind for good and to underline that Western unity against Russia remains solid. He said France is America’s oldest ally and the US could not ask for a better partner than France.

As expected, the war in Ukraine was on top of the agenda of his talks with President Macron.

During the joint press conference of the two leaders last Friday, President Biden was asked about the prospect of Ukraine launching peace talks with President Putin. Both leaders declared that this was for Kyiv to decide.

As for resuming dialogue with President Putin, Mr. Biden said, “Look, there is one way for this war to end the rational way: Putin to pull out of Ukraine.  Number one.  But it appears he’s not going to do that… I have no immediate plans to contact Mr. Putin.  Mr. Putin is — let me choose my words very carefully — I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if in fact there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war.  He hasn’t done that yet.  If that’s the case, in consultation with my French and my NATO friends, I’ll be happy to sit down with Putin to see what he wants — has in mind.  He hasn’t done that yet… I’m prepared, if he’s willing to talk, to find out what he’s willing to do, but I’ll only do it in consultation with my NATO Allies.  I’m not going to do it on my own.”

The Kremlin responded to Mr. Biden’s remarks by repeating that the West must recognize the annexation of Russia’s “new territories” before any talks with Putin. “The president of the Russian Federation has always been, is, and remains open to negotiations in order to ensure our interests,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Later in the day, “We’re just not at a point now where talks seem to be a fruitful avenue to approach right now,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.

Also on Friday, in a telephone call between the two leaders, Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday urged President Putin to seek a diplomatic solution to end the war in Ukraine, including troop withdrawal. The Kremlin readout of the call said that the as a result of the destructive policy of Western countries, including Germany, providing Kyiv with weapons, military training, and comprehensive political and financial support, Kyiv rejects any idea of negotiations.

And in a parting shot on Saturday, President Macron told French TV station TF1 that Europe needs to prepare its future security architecture. “This means that one of the essential points we must address – as President Putin has always said – is the fear that NATO comes right up to its doors, and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia. That topic will be part of the topics for peace, so we need to prepare what we are ready to do, how we protect our allies and member states, and how to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table,” Mr. Macron said.[ii] One can but assume that he raised this also with President Biden.

It is clear that President Macron and Chancellor Scholz are trying to encourage the launching of talks between Kyiv and Moscow but the Russian air strikes on civilian infrastructure are making this even more difficult.

Whether France and the US are exactly on the same page toward China will become clearer when Mr. Macron visits China early in the new year. Recently he said, “I am convinced China can play on our side, a more important mediating role in the coming months, to prevent in particular a stronger return of ground offensives in early February.”

But last week, Professor John Mearsheimer, a principal critic of Western policy regarding the Ukraine conflict, clearly stated in an interview that there is no deal to be worked out for now and the war would drag on, the principal obstacles to peace being the diametrically opposite views on annexed Ukrainian territories and the guarantees to be provided for Ukrainian neutrality. Moreover, he added that the possibility of a nuclear confrontation cannot be entirely excluded. [iii]

In Washington, President Macron raised with his host other issues, among them the challenges facing the European natural gas market, nuclear cooperation as France plans to build more nuclear reactors to produce electricity, and most importantly French objection to billions of dollars of US subsidies for electric vehicles and other products that are assembled in North America under Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act. President Biden said that this was not the intention of the Act and the two sides decided to work together to resolve the problem.

Thus, a little over a year after the “stab in the back”, France-US relations appear to have been re-energized though differences remain. France and Germany are more eager than Washington to end the war in Ukraine but they also remain mindful of the fact that achieving European strategic autonomy with lesser dependence on the US is a costly project.

Compliance with the West’s Russia sanctions aside, there is considerable common ground between the positions taken by Paris, Berlin, and Ankara on the Ukraine conflict. The three capitals want the hostilities to stop and a return to some semblance of normalcy in Europe and Russia-West relations. Yet, the overarching problem of chemistry and mutual mistrust between Ankara and most of its European allies remains an obstacle to closer cooperation. This was why when President Biden called on the leaders of Canada, the European Commission, the European Council, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom, during the G20 summit in Bali to discuss the blast in Poland and issue a statement, the only leader absent at the meeting was President Erdogan. Unfortunately, the EU-G7 60-dollar price cap on Russia’s seaborne crude oil may lead to new difficulties for the Türkiye-West relationship.


[i] https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2022/09/20/speech-by-the-president-of-the-french-republic-at-the-uunited-nations-general-assembly

[ii] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/macron-says-new-security-architecture-should-give-guarantees-russia-2022-12-03/

[iii] https://www.google.com/search?q=mearsheimer+youtube&sxsrf=ALiCzsYJKDVftOC1xKYNL6XYggVmL8wlww%3A1670056938662&ei=6guLY5-EKL6Jxc8Pz8qD2Aw&oq=mearsheimer+youtybe&gs_lcp=Cgxnd3Mtd2l6LXNlcnAQARgAMgcIABCABBANMgcIABCABBANMggIABAFEB4QDTIICAAQBRAeEA0yCAgAEAUQHhANMggIABAFEB4QDTIICAAQBRAeEA0yCAgAEAgQHhANOgoIABBHENYEELADOgQIABBDOggIABCABBDLAToFCAAQgAQ6BQguEIAEOgYIABAWEB5KBAhBGABKBAhGGABQjwZYuhhguT5oAXABeACAAZcBiAHvB5IBAzAuOJgBAKABAcgBCMABAQ&sclient=gws-wiz-serp#fpstate=ive&vld=cid:19e522ff,vid:HBiV1h7Dm5E


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