From L to R, French President Emmanuel Macron, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and US President Joe Biden smile at the end of the Global Fund Seventh Replenishment Conference in New York on September 21, 2022.

From L to R, French President Emmanuel Macron, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and US President Joe Biden smile at the end of the Global Fund Seventh Replenishment Conference in New York on September 21, 2022. AFP via Getty Images / Ludovic MARIN

When Macron and Biden Meet, Will it Be Love, Actually?

America needs to see eye-to-eye with its oldest ally.

In the sappy Christmas movie “Love Actually,” there is a key moment when a young and charismatic European leader stands up to a bigfooting American president—and vows to keep doing it. 

“From now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger,” says the fictional UK prime minister, played, of course, by Hugh Grant. "And the president should be prepared for that."

Joe Biden can expect to hear much the same when French President Emmanuel Macron arrives for a visit this week. The war in Ukraine has drawn Washington and Paris closer, but also underlined Macron’s arguments that Europe needs stronger defenses. What will it mean for Biden’s alliance-centric foreign policy?

France, America’s oldest ally, has always had an independent streak. For four years, Macron deftly played President Donald Trump, allowing the public to believe a fake “bromance” was brewing, only later to come to Washington and criticize everything Trump stands for in a globally-televised address to a joint session of Congress. 

And when Biden defeated Trump, Macron did not defer to the elder statesmen’s noble-if-nostalgic waxings about the transatlantic-oriented world order that was forged in 1945—three years after Biden was born—the one in which Europeans rely on the United States for troops, weapons, nuclear umbrella, and more. Just one month after Biden took office, Macron chided the pre-Boomer president in a nearly-condescending speech at the Munich Security Conference, pressing his own vision of European strategic autonomy.

Then came the AUKUS submarine deal. Biden’s team surprised Élysée Palace in September 2021 by submarining a French deal with the Australians to make diesel boats, instead convincing Canberra to go nuclear and buy American. France pulled its ambassador from Washington, a major diplomatic-white-glove slap to the face. Pundits went red-faced. Op-eds were written; U.S. concessions were made. But that was one year ago. That was before Russia invaded Ukraine.

War has brought the presidents in Paris and Washington together to fight global autocratic forces. But even in this, Macron has been polarizing. Some accuse him of coddling Russia’s Vladimir Putin and shaking hands with the murderous Iranian regime. Others applaud his efforts to keep world leaders talking even during war.

The invasion has also muddled Macron’s pitch for European strategic autonomy. On the one hand, it has proved his contention that Europe needs more of its own military power, technology, industry, personnel, and budget. But it has also underlined how the United States remains the political, industrial, and technological keystone of the continent’s defense—and its ability to boldly stand up to Moscow.

Ahead of this week’s visit, French officials laid out an agenda of cooperation. Biden and Macron have already “decided to look forward” past the AUKUS moment, a French official told reporters on Monday. “I’m sure you will see increasing manifestations of France” in the Indo-Pacific region.”

At meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, the presidents are expected to discuss many defense topics, including Iran and Syria. “On North Eastern Syria, we have insisted to continue to fight against the terrorist threat and we are doing this in a very close coordination with the U.S.,” said the official.

And, of course, Ukraine. “We come at a moment of this war where it is important to confirm the incredibly close cooperation we had since the very beginning of this war,” the official said.

France’s Ambassador to the U.S. Philipe Étienne underlined that on Tuesday, telling MSNBC that the visit will mark “the confirmation of our strong unity” on Ukraine. 

“Ukraine is going to be one of the top agenda items for the two presidents to discuss,” a senior U.S. administration official confirmed to reporters on Monday evening.  

Expect a Francophile state visit on par with Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy’s time. The French official said Macron is the only French president to be given two official state visits here. “It's also a really important confirmation of our both oldest alliance but also strategic partnership in the world of today and tomorrow.” 

At home, Macron fought off a surprising challenge from a far-right bloc many thought was dead a decade ago. As in America, Great Britain, Germany and elsewhere, sizable French populations want what they see in Russia: a nationalist leader more than a world leader. Now that Macron and Biden played their cards well enough to win office, they need to play nice and remain strong for their own countries, not engage in a pointless duel. Macron has little reason to chide the White House like he did when Trump ran it. If Biden’s global vision is still a network of strong alliances with the United States at its hub, but Macron’s is much less America-dependent, then out of sight from this week’s cameras, their strategists and national security communities have work to do. 

“This is an opportunity to highlight a foundational component of this administration's approach to foreign policy, and that's through alliances,” National Security Council coordinator John Kirby said on Monday.  

We shall see.