As he left his home of France for a high-profile meeting with his U.S. counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron carried with him a barrel of frustrations from European allies over some of Joe Biden’s signature policy accomplishments.
Those frustrations quickly bubbled up into public view once Macron reached Washington on Wednesday, as he stopped at the French embassy and delivered a speech in his native language and singled out two bills that Biden signed into law as “choices that will fragment the West, because they create such differences between the United States of America and Europe.”
Macron was talking about the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, two sprawling measures Congress passed over the summer that are poised to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into subsidies and tax incentives for electric car manufacturing and microchip makers in the U.S.
Macron said he agreed with the broad goals of both bills—jump-starting sustainable energy technologies and making the world economy less dependent in China for chip manufacturing—but warned they come at a time when the strong U.S. dollar is adding to inflation in Europe, Russia’s stranglehold on gas is spiking energy prices, and Europe is facing a recession.
Macron’s demand that Biden rethink some of his administration’s proudest accomplishments is an early warning sign that a growing energy crisis in Europe could test the unity of European nations, as they bear the economic brunt of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine.
After a two-and-a-half hour one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office with Macron, Biden told reporters he makes “no apology for” the massive technology and green energy investments he signed into law. But he acknowledged there might be “glitches” in the $390 billion in climate change initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act and said he would be looking at “tweaks” that could be made. “When I wrote the legislation, it was never intended to exclude those who are cooperating with us,” Biden said.
The annoyance Macron brought to the White House heats up a long-standing trouble spot in U.S.-European relations as European powers grapple with a raft of measures Biden has put in place to make the U.S. supply chain less reliant on overseas factories and add manufacturing jobs to the U.S. economy.
“What’s the French word for ‘annoyed’?” says Michael Allen, who served in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and was a former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, about the French response to the measures. He noted that making changes to such a carefully negotiated piece of legislation wouldn’t be easy for Biden, particularly once Republicans take control of the House in January. “Biden potentially opened Pandora’s box to a mad scramble to fix it sooner rather than later,” Allen says.
Former French ambassador to Washington Gérard Araud said on France’s LCI Television on Thursday morning that some of the Biden provisions drawing frustration in Europe were part of a protectionist trend in American politics that spanned the Trump and Biden administrations. “Presidents Trump and Biden have listened to their voters, and so they’re reinforcing their protectionism,” Araud said. “It’s a long-term protectionism that will not stop, it didn’t stop with Trump, or with Biden, and the Europeans must understand this.”
For his part, Macron has urged his fellow European countries to work to come up with their own economic incentives that could be done in coordination with the U.S. government. “We can’t ask the United States to resolve Europe’s problems,” Macron told reporters on Thursday. “We in Europe must move stronger and faster,” Macron said.
Hosting the French president for Biden’s first State Dinner is part of the repair work being done by the Biden Administration after it blindsided France last year by agreeing to work with Australia on building a nuclear-powered submarine fleet. The surprise announcement sank France’s own lucrative submarine deal with Australia and caused Paris to temporarily recall its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.
The Biden administration’s decision to fete Macron in Washington is also an acknowledgement that Macron has emerged in the wake of political turnover across the continent as the strongest, most high-profile European leader.
Biden started off his meeting with Macron on Thursday with some flattery.
“Emmanuel is not just the leader of France, he’s one of the leaders of Europe. He’s been very outspoken, and he has been very, very commanding in Europe,” Biden said, sitting next to Macron in the Oval Office.
Macron could use the boost, as he faces harsh political headwinds at home and is eager to play up his influence on the world stage to his audience back in France. His party lost control of France’s parliamentary majority in April and discontent over rising energy costs and economic pain is sapping his popularity. As Macron arrived in Washington on Wednesday, a new poll showed his approval rating at 37%, down 6% since his reelection in April.
Read more: The Challenges Ahead for Emmanuel Macron
Earlier this year, Macron repeatedly spoke to Putin after the Russian autocrat started rolling tanks toward Kyiv in February, but failed to find diplomatic footing and risked fragmenting support for Ukraine before he begged off the effort.
Macron acknowledged on Thursday that the time and terms for peace talks must be determined by Ukraine. Biden said he was “prepared to speak” with Putin if he’s “looking for a way to end the war.” Biden said he had “no immediate plans” to talk to the Russian leader and any talks he had with Putin would be in close consultation with European allies.
The meeting of the two leaders at the White House on Thursday went more than an hour longer than planned. Biden presented Macron with a mirror made from wood that fell on the White House grounds and a record collection of American musicians. Among the gifts Macron gave Biden was a vinyl record of the 1966 French film, A Man and A Woman, the story of a couple who have lost their spouses falling in love, that Biden saw on an early date with First Lady Jill Biden. The visit was set to continue Thursday night with an elaborate state dinner featuring Maine lobster, American caviar, Napa Valley chardonnay, and a performance from New Orleans songwriter and singer Jon Batiste.
Amid the pleasantries and pageantry, Macron made clear that his most pressing disagreement between the two countries was rooted in trade. Macron called on Biden to “synchronize” U.S. economic policies to better align with Europe’s.
Toward the end of the press conference, a French-speaking reporter pressed Macron to show what evidence of improving trade relations he got from Biden, pointing to a line from the avant-garde artist Jean Cocteau, that there’s “no such thing as love, only proof of love.” Macron replied, “We are not here to ask for proof of love. We are here to agree on a strategy and we did.”
—WITH REPORTING BY VIVIENNE WALT/PARIS
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