PARIS – Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump did not agree on much. But in some ways, life was easier for the French president before Joe Biden entered the White House.
With Trump continuing his America First foreign policy, Macron could pose as the world’s chief multilateralist – trying to get everyone to work together for the global good. He also tried to act as Trump’s whisperer, seeking to forge a macho relationship with the American leader and manage his ego at global events such as the G7 summit in Biarritz in 2019.
Both roles have given Macron a central place on the world stage. But as he prepares to meet Biden for the first time at the G7 summit in Cornwall, England this weekend, the French president sees the leadership position recaptured by his American counterpart, avowed champion of multilateralism.
This presents Macron with a more subtle challenge: how to work with Biden on their many common efforts while retaining the global leadership role he enjoys and which France expects, as well as trying to preserve a uniquely French and European position. on some issues.
So far, Macron’s response to this challenge has revealed irritation at the credit Biden has received for his international initiatives, as well as apparent bidding attempts, adjustments to the way the US administration operates and relief. to have a more reasonable partner in Washington again.
Even before Biden took office, Macron appeared to be trying to preemptively set items on the international agenda. Late last year, he pitched the idea of a “Paris Consensus” – a set of priorities for the 21st century that went beyond the Washington consensus focused on 20th century economics.
Likewise, France backed an EU decision to go ahead with an investment deal with China just weeks before Biden’s inauguration – even though the president’s team had made it clear that she wanted the EU to wait.
Since Biden took office, Macron has often said that it is the United States that is catching up with Europe on climate, biodiversity and vaccine solidarity – pillars of the new global multilateral agenda that Europeans have had to build without it. support from Trump.
Macron was also keen to preserve a separate European approach to the world’s biggest problems, even at the risk of being seen as a superior Biden.
In April, days before Biden’s leaders’ climate summit, Macron hosted a tripartite summit video conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the same topic.
The official French line was that Macron had informed the United States of his intention to hold such talks, in an attempt to get China to increase its climate commitments, when Biden’s special climate envoy John Kerry , visited Macron in Paris.
But, to some at least, the Elysee Palace seemed to allow the Chinese government to set the narrative around the summit and steal a march on Biden – Beijing announced the meeting before the French, while Kerry was in Shanghai for a series of talks . US officials have been privately puzzled by the message.
Macron also sought to create a role for himself, through the UN, in the latest eruption of conflict between Israel and Hamas, trying to table a Security Council resolution for a ceasefire – even though the United States had blocked a previous one. and intended to deal with the conflict bilaterally.
The bidding goes both ways.
In May, Biden eclipsed a European Council summit in Portugal by announcing that he supported the lifting of patents on COVID-19 vaccines to ease access for poorer countries.
Its European allies were caught off guard, first and foremost Germany and France, who were not in favor of patent measurement and instead asked the United States to donate doses and lift bans on patents. export of vaccine components as a faster way to help poorer countries.
When asked at a press conference whether Biden had claimed moral leadership on COVID-19 vaccine solidarity by supporting the patent waiver, Macron was visibly upset. He insisted that the United States was catching up to Europe on solidarity and accused the European press of having an inferiority complex towards the United States.
“When the United States follows us, which is actually what happens… you say ah, the United States has the leadership! Macron told reporters: “You make me feel like you’re waking up, you haven’t followed the film.”
Then late Wednesday, before the G7 summit which will focus heavily on the coronavirus pandemic, the two sides seemed to converge. Macron expressed support for lifting vaccine patents to help end the coronavirus pandemic, while Biden was set to announce plans to purchase 500 million doses of BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine to distribute to d ‘other countries.
On a personal level, Macron’s relationship with Biden is less dependent on Trump’s. Biden governs in a more collegial style than Trump and delegates much more to senior officials.
Nonetheless, personal relationships between leaders are crucial when their staff fail to overcome differences.
At first glance, Macron, the upstart prodigy with little folkloric appeal, and the down-to-earth Biden – who has been in politics longer than the French president has been alive – are very different. But politically, they are not that far apart on many issues; both can be considered centrist pragmatists. And they have at least one thing in common, personally: they are both married to teachers.
Meanwhile, French officials must also readjust to deal with the entire vast US government, including the State Department, the National Security Council and Congress, after more than three years where Macron has primarily dealt directly. with Trump on all major issues.
French and American officials maintain that cooperation between the two countries – between diplomats, advisers, ministers and presidents – is deep, broad, effective and constructive, especially since some of them have known each other for nearly a decade. since the Obama administration.
Even small gestures were appreciated by the French side, such as the use of the French language by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in certain international forums. Blinken spoke in French when he announced that the United States was joining the Christchurch Appeal, a New Zealand-French-led initiative to tackle hate online.
But after four years of Trump’s unpredictability, French and European officials are not taking the new administration’s warm words on international cooperation at face value. They are looking for concrete actions.
Vaccine solidarity will be at the center of this weekend’s G7, and while the United States and France agree on the concept, they differ on how to get there. French officials are waiting to see what the United States delivers.
“Concretely, if we want to accelerate access to vaccines and increase production capacity, export barriers must be lifted,” said a Macron adviser in a sharp search in the United States. “We in the EU have no barriers to exports.”
French officials will also monitor whether the United States is using the EU-backed international COVAX initiative to donate the millions of doses of vaccine it previously announced it would give to poorer countries.
“We will look to the United States to see if they deliver or not,” the adviser said.
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