On Dec. 1, 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron will be in Washington for a state visit, the first one for the Biden administration. Macron’s visit seems to suggest that the US-France relationship is at a high point. Yet, while the state visit is certainly a welcome sign of warming relations after the frigid Trump years and the cold front of President Joe Biden’s first year in office, pomp and circumstance should not lead to a sense of complacency.
A wide array of bilateral tensions remain between Washington and Paris — many of which have no easy solution in sight.
A HALTING ALLIANCE
Former President Donald Trump’s hostile approach toward Europe — including threats to pull out of NATO and characterizations of the European Union as a “foe” — injected substantial uncertainty into the US-France alliance. Throughout Trump’s time in office, Macron consistently pushed for greater European strategic autonomy, arguing that France could not depend on the United States.
Paris complains that Washington continues to act unilaterally without regard for French interests. This tendency is particularly evident in the economic domain.
While Biden’s election offered new hope for the relationship, the honeymoon was short-lived. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 initially renewed anxiety about a lack of consideration for French interests in US decision-making. These concerns exploded the following month when France recalled its ambassador to the United States for the first time in history after Biden announced the new Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security partnership. Replacing a previously agreed submarine deal between Paris and Canberra, AUKUS was seen as a “stab in the back” by France. It didn’t help that the Biden administration did not bother to consult the ally beforehand.
To his credit, Biden quickly worked to patch things up, admitting his poor handling of the situation and affirming US support for Macron’s varied priorities, such as “French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region” as well as “a stronger and more capable European defense.” When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the recent diplomatic spat had been largely brushed under the rug in the face of the urgent need for a coordinated response to Moscow. Since then, the United States and France have jointly imposed harsh sanctions on Russia and provided critical aid to Kyiv, creating the impression of a revitalized alliance that has put its troubles behind it.
THE PAST IS NEVER PAST
Yet, as the costs of support mount, old cracks in the relationship are resurfacing. Growing US frustration with the disparity between its support for Ukraine and that of key European allies — including France — is reigniting the longstanding transatlantic security burden-sharing debate. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, EU member states and institutions combined have only provided slightly more than half as much support to Ukraine as has the United States. Paris, in particular, appears to be punching noticeably below its weight. For example, while the French government does not disclose all details of its weapons shipments to Ukraine, estimates peg its total support for Ukraine as a percentage of GDP below the European average. France has also trained far fewer Ukrainian troops than the United Kingdom, Europe’s other main military power.
While the Biden administration has refrained from openly criticizing the European response, US Republicans are increasingly voicing their discontent. Ahead of the recent midterm elections, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) cast doubt on the future of congressional support for Ukraine. Other prominent Republicans — including newly elected Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) and current Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — have called for Europeans to “step up” and accused them of “freeload[ing].”
This may be seen as the re-emergence of longstanding dissatisfaction with burden-sharing in the transatlantic security relationship, with meager European aid to Ukraine replacing low defense budgets as the object of US ire. Though Republicans failed to gain as many seats as expected, their takeover of the House following the midterms empowers this perspective within the US government. Moreover, though Republicans are particularly vocal on burden-sharing issues, there has always been a bipartisan consensus that Europe should do more. Therefore, even Democrats are likely to show frustration unless the status quo changes — a questionable prospect given the economic toll of Europe’s energy crisis. However, Macron’s recent announcements of a new €100 million fund to support Ukrainian military procurement and a plan to train 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers suggests that France may be changing track on its support to Kyiv.
THE RETURN OF “AMERICA FIRST”?
Paris complains that Washington continues to act unilaterally without regard for French interests. This tendency is particularly evident in the economic domain. One of the most contentious issues at present concerns the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which provides generous subsidies for electric vehicles and batteries produced in the United States. The EU has pushed back against these incentives to “Buy American,” arguing they unfairly discriminate against its own producers, given that the EU market remains open to US products.
China looks quite different depending on whether one sits in Washington or Paris. Russia is also a point of division.
Though many EU countries share this view, Paris has been most vociferous in its response, threatening to file a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization or even introduce “Buy European” measures if the United States does not back down. Berlin’s suggestion of a softer approach involving renewed negotiations seems to have won out in Brussels at the moment, as evidenced by the recent creation of a US-EU task force to resolve the dispute. Yet, it’s far from clear if such talks will lead anywhere. While it is possible that Democrats could eventually introduce exemptions for US-based European firms, such efforts will be complicated by greater Republican influence in Congress and Biden’s approaching reelection campaign. In the meantime, French frustration will continue to fester, potentially poisoning other areas of bilateral cooperation with the United States.
Electric vehicles aren’t the only issue stirring up bitter memories of the Trump years. Large disparities between prices of US liquefied natural gas (LNG) sold in Europe and LNG sold on the US market led French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in October 2022 to accuse US exporters of exploiting the energy crisis to further “American economic domination and a weakening of Europe.” Macron subsequently repeated these allegations at a meeting with leaders of the French industry on Nov. 8, 2022.
Unlike the criticisms of the Inflation Reduction Act, complaints of US gas price gouging are unfounded. Responsibility instead lies primarily with European utility companies, which have been buying LNG from US suppliers at previously agreed long-term contract prices before selling them in Europe at a profit. Ironically, the largest exporter of US LNG to Europe this year has been none other than France’s Total Energies. Fortunately, this misunderstanding may be relatively easy to correct, and Biden should be able to do so when he meets with Macron. Yet, if it is not squashed soon, this irritant risks metastasizing into a much larger problem.
A CLASH OF PERSPECTIVES
Divergences are also evident when it comes to broad visions of international relations. China, for instance, looks quite different depending on whether one sits in Washington or Paris. The United States views Beijing as the most significant threat to the US-led order and is increasingly bent on pursuing all measures available to constrain its rise. France, by contrast, sees an opportunity for Europe to act as an intermediary between China and the United States and flex its own geopolitical muscle in the process.
These different perspectives — more a function of fundamental structural factors than contingent ones — frequently lead to misaligned approaches. Most recently, Macron’s suggestion that Xi Jinping “play the role of a mediator” between Russia and Ukraine has clashed with US efforts to call out Beijing’s tacit support of the invasion. Other examples abound. Despite its claims to be a “Pacific power,” Paris is not as invested as Washington in East Asian security and has expressed wariness at Washington’s efforts to turn NATO’s attention to China. Macron has also warned other EU leaders not to “join all together against China” with Washington. Despite shared concerns with the United States on China’s values and human rights abuses, France — along with most of Europe — sees the relationship with Beijing less as a zero-sum game than as a complex challenge encompassing not only rivalry or competition but also genuine cooperation.
Russia is also a point of division. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Macron consistently argued that outreach to Moscow was necessary to build a new security order in which Europe would be less dependent on the United States. While the war has forced him to dial back this ambition, the French president has nonetheless continued to stress the need for negotiation since February 2022, calling on the West not to “humiliate Russia.” Biden, by contrast, has expressed a desire to oust President Vladimir Putin from power, while his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated in April 2022 that the United States “wants to see Russia weakened.” This difference in approach is only likely to become more evident as the question of how to end the war gains more relevance in the coming months.
A ROUGH ROAD AHEAD
Macron’s visit to Washington this Thursday, while a positive development for US-France relations, should not mask the numerous divergences between the two countries spanning security, trade, and diplomacy. And while the meeting may be an opportunity to tackle low-hanging fruit, such as the misunderstanding over LNG prices, many tricker disagreements will require more intensive efforts to resolve — though some may be too entrenched to settle.
More worrying still is the possibility of a widening rift between societal values in the United States and France. Despite repeated differences in interests over the years, an understanding of shared commitment to ideas such as individual liberty and democracy has long smoothed the path toward the resolution of disputes in the US-France relationship. France, however, increasingly questions whether the United States still holds these commitments, with alarm bells ringing after the assault on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
While the Biden administration has alleviated some of these concerns, 2024 looms large in the French political consciousness. The election of Trump or another president sharing his tendencies could push the relationship past its breaking point, and even a Democratic president must contend with trends toward illiberalism in the judicial and legislative branches of government.
Still, the past may offer some cause for optimism. Since first becoming allies nearly two and a half centuries ago, the United States and France have consistently managed to set differences aside to maintain a close and successful working relationship. With any luck, this pattern will repeat in the years to come.
Nick Lokker is a Research Assistant with the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.