NEW ORLEANS – Serenaded by a jazz band at the airport, cheered on by crowds as he strolled through the French Quarter and even attempted a few dance moves, President Emmanuel Macron plunged into the most French of American cities on Friday. , the last tour of his state visit to the United States.
After a State dinner and an intense day of diplomacy in Washington, where President Biden and Mr. Macron found an unusual unity of words on Thursday on the war in Ukraine and the economic challenges resulting from it, the visit to New -Orleans seemed to bring a tonic to a leader whose second term which began in May proved difficult.
“It’s regenerating,” said Catherine Colonna, France’s foreign minister, as she watched Mr Macron greet people. “Any true politician loves the crowd.”
Of course, a mob can do unexpected things. Mr. Macron immediately had the story that drew him to New Orleans thrown in his face as he strolled down Rue Saint-Pierre near Jackson Square.
“You idiot, you sold Louisiana for a pittance!” said Esther Dahan, raised in Casablanca and fluent in French, as Mr Macron shook her hand.
“I know,” the president said, smiling a little wistfully and shaking his head.
Ms. Dahan was referring to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 under which a large territory was sold by France to the United States for just over $27 million. The sale, at around 3 cents an acre, nearly doubled the size of the United States and propelled the fledgling country into continental power.
On the elaborate wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter, crowds greeted Mr. Macron. Some shouted “Allez Les Bleus!” — a reference to the French football team for the World Cup, which has now qualified for the round of 16. When asked why she thought Mr Macron came here, Denise Minvielle, a descendant of French grandparents, replied: “Because it’s the best place on earth!”
Several cities, including Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles, had been considered as possible second destinations during the visit, French officials said. But Mr. Macron, with his keen sense of history, favored New Orleans, the last visit of a French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in 1976.
With relatively new leaders in power in Germany, Italy and Britain, Mr Macron, 44, is as close to the doyen of European politics as anyone, his restlessness and quest spirit a boost for some, a provocation for others.
For a minute, he insists that Russia must one day be part of Europe’s “strategic architecture”, then he dwells on the unacceptable “imperial” aggression of President Vladimir V. Putin, which should never be allowed. One minute he’s declaring NATO “brain dead,” as he did in 2019, the next he’s hailing the alliance’s inviolable strength.
During this visit, he went in just two days from suggesting that Mr Biden’s economic policies could “fragment the West” because subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act constitute unfair competition , to say that the differences would be resolved and that the Franco-American friendship was unbreakable.
He is constantly testing new ideas and changing course. He’s not called the “at the same time” president for nothing. His upheaval since becoming French leader at the age of 39 has all but destroyed the centre-left and centre-right parties that were the basis of post-war French politics – the Socialists and the republicans.
But having lost his parliamentary majority in the April elections and lost his shine with many French people after bursting onto the scene in 2017, he is seeking political leadership as the war in Ukraine and failed attempts to end it occupy a much of his time. .
A warm American welcome and unexpected, albeit highly conditional, support from Mr. Biden for his outreach to Mr. Putin was therefore particularly welcome. He can now return home to Paris with his diplomacy at least partially vindicated and America’s oldest alliance reaffirmed.
Mr Macron has been relentlessly attacked in France, by the left for favoring the wealthy and proposing to gradually raise the retirement age from 62 to 65; and by the right for being lenient on immigration. In the United States, however, he has come a long way to overcome economic tensions and find the best way to end the war.
Welcoming Mr. Macron mid-afternoon Thursday for a long-delayed lunch at the State Department, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken deadpanned, “Good evening.”
When the laughter died down, he described the French leader standing next to him as a man “of exceptional vision” and “a galvanizing force for all of us, all of our partners”. We couldn’t do without it. »
How much of a political animal Mr Macron is was quickly apparent during the lunch hosted by Mr Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris. Doing without notes, speaking in English, explaining that his meeting with President Biden lasted three hours because “we arranged everything”, Mr. Macron composed an improvised hymn to the “unique bond” between the United States and France.
If some find the two countries “too proud or too sure of themselves”, Mr. Macron suggested, it is because “we absolutely believe that we are responsible for protecting certain universal values”, such as the freedom that young American soldiers defended by dying. on European soil “which they had never known before”.
“We will never forget it,” he said.
During the delayed lunch, Mr Macron also thanked the United States for its “unparalleled commitment and investment” in supporting the people of Ukraine as winter approaches. From the leading proponent of European “strategic autonomy,” an idea that has at times irked the Biden administration, it seemed like a particularly generous endorsement of America’s vital role in Europe.
From the war, Mr Macron turned to domestic politics, seeing what he called the “resurgence of racism and hate speech” in Western societies. He thanked the United States for turning away from “demagogues”.
In all his comings and goings, Mr. Macron has never wavered on one thing: the central importance of the fight against far-right nationalisms and the French commitment to the European Union, the bulwark of democracy. and post-war freedoms on the continent. As the US turned to former President Donald Trump and Britain to Brexit, he twice stood between France and a victory for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party .
It was particularly important for Mr. Biden, who likes to say that the world is at a tipping point between democracy and rising autocracy.
While in New Orleans, Mr Macron met Elon Musk. Officials said the meeting, which was not on its official agenda, took place at the request of Mr Musk, whom Mr Macron met twice when he was economy minister between 2014 and 2016, but never before as president.
Mr Macron said in a tweet: “In line with our ambition to become carbon neutral and reindustrialise France and Europe, I spoke today with Elon Musk about future green industrial projects, including the manufacture of cars electricity in Europe and batteries”.
On Friday evening, Mr. Macron gave a speech at the New Orleans Museum of Art, in which he said he felt at home. “There is what I would call a familiar strangeness in this city,” he said, adding that “our language and our history is here.”
It seems that is what Mr. Macron was looking for when he came to New Orleans, one of the most European American cities. A French student, Thibault Boyer, 20, an engineering student at the University of New Orleans, said he was delighted to exchange a few words with the president.
“It’s strange that I had better luck meeting him here than at home in Paris,” he said. “I did not expect that.”