TIT SOUNDS crunched knuckles was an early warning. There he was, newly elected and not yet 40, shaking hands with the leader of the free world with the carefree confidence of a neophyte. Shortly after his election in 2017, Emmanuel Macron then offered Donald Trump a dinner (on the Eiffel Tower!) And a July 14 parade (a military parade!) As part of a courtyard that led some observers to call the French president the “whispering Trump”. “He’s a great guy … loves to hold my hand,” said Mr. Trump.
In the end, it didn’t work out very well for Mr Macron. Mr. Trump pulled America out of the Paris climate deal and tore up the nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran. Although they still speak regularly and Mr. Macron has been very close to bringing America and Iran closer together last year, the two have clashed over wine, technology, planes, NATO and more. The US president has shown himself largely immune to Mr Macron’s charm offensive. If Mr Trump is drawn to a European leader, it is Boris Johnson, whom he once called “Britain Trump” – the highest praise he can imagine.
Yet, as the prospect of the Trump years draws to a close, a different opening presents itself. Mr. Macron is nothing if not pragmatic, and if Joe Biden were elected on November 3, the French leader could be well placed to seize a new opportunity: to establish himself as America’s interlocutor of choice in Europe. The circumstances are favorable. Mr. Trump has trampled on the entire transatlantic alliance and left America without a proper working link with the continent. Brexit has made Britain “less useful” to America, in the words of Peter Ricketts, a former British national security adviser. He is also seen as less trustworthy. Already, Mr Biden, of Irish Catholic descent, has warned Britain not to let the Anglo-Irish deal become a victim of Brexit. To be sure, President Biden’s instinct may well be to look to Germany instead, especially to repair the damage Mr. Trump has done to that friendship. As the deanery of the leaders of the European Union, Angela Merkel would slip effortlessly into the role. But the Chancellor is also in her last year of employment. His successor is unknown, but the choices offered are not inspiring.
Hence the luck of France. In fact, Mr Macron has never met Mr Biden – although Barack Obama, right after leaving office, called the French candidate ahead of his election to wish him luck. Throughout the campaign, Biden’s team closed the doors to all foreign diplomats, in order to thwart any future accusations of outside interference. But France has exceptionally good relations. Antony Blinken, Mr. Biden’s senior foreign policy adviser, spent his high school years at a Paris high school, the Ecole Jeannine Manuel. He kept his links and was selected for the “Young leaders” program of the Franco-American Foundation, a few years before a certain Mr. Macron was also selected. Emmanuel Bonne, the diplomatic adviser to Mr. Macron, has known Mr. Blinken since his visit to the French mission to the United Nations in New York. Mr. Bonne’s predecessor at the Elysee Palace, Philippe Etienne, is now the French man in Washington. He succeeded Gérard Araud, an energetic agent of French soft power, outspoken on Twitter and host of memorable evenings at the residence for the all Washington.
Berlin and Paris would both welcome an America that is no longer determined to divide Europe, committed to curbing climate change, strengthening multilateralism and re-engaging with Iran. What sets France apart from Germany, however, is its ability to project military force. As it stands, France is counting on American support for its counterterrorism operations in the Sahel and would welcome the engagement of an internationalist colleague. Mr Macron has often been frustrated by a lack of strong partners – to deal with Turkey, Libya or other Mediterranean crises – and ended up being accused of acting unilaterally. He now faces an ugly campaign of protests from Turkey in Qatar, following his defense of freedom of expression and the right to cartoon in response to the beheading of a schoolteacher who showed students caricatures of Muhammad . He needs all the defenders of liberal democracy he can find.
“The stage could well be set for Macron,” said Benjamin Haddad of the Atlantic Council in Washington. But there are two big caveats, beyond the differences over Russia, China, or even trade. The first is that Mr. Biden might not seek to deal with a single dominant leader, much less with a taste for directing. “Macron could emerge as a privileged interlocutor,” suggests Mr. Araud, “but on condition that he does so with others, and especially with Germany.”
The other is that a President Biden seeking to revive old alliances through existing structures would quickly stumble upon the news Mr. Macron is trying to forge. The world has changed since the Obama years. The centerpiece of Mr. Macron’s geostrategic thinking – his “operating software”, as a presidential adviser puts it – is “European sovereignty”. The organizing principle is that Europeans must do and do more for themselves, including in defense. Its corollary is that Americans should accept that Europeans are doing more for themselves and for themselves.
This puts Mr Macron on a collision course with the instincts of the US defense establishment. As Michel Duclos, a former French diplomat, notes in an article for the Institut Montaigne, a think tank, the risk is that a Biden administration will default to “a polite practice of consultation in exchange for an alignment without ambiguity on the American positions ”. The case of Mr. Macron that he does not intend to undermine NATO remains to be done.
On the contrary, France may have to tone down expectations. Under Mr. Obama, Europe was already disappearing from American sight. Yet Mr. Biden would still need allies. And the chance to supplant Britain is an old instinct. Passionate about history, Mr. Macron knows that France is America’s oldest ally – and that at a decisive moment for independence, at Yorktown in 1781, it was the Marquis de Lafayette who helped l America to defeat the British. ■
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This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Mission de Macron”