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PARIS – Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump didn’t agree much. But in some ways life was easier for the French President before Joe Biden moved into the White House.
With Trump pursuing his America-first foreign policy, Macron could call himself the multilateral leader of the world – trying to get everyone to work together for the global good. He also tried performing as a Trump whisperer to forge a macho relationship with the U.S. leader and control his ego at global events like the G7 Biarritz summit in 2019.
Both roles gave 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 finds that leadership has been resumed by his American counterpart, an avowed advocate of multilateralism.
That presents Macron with a more subtle challenge: how to work with Biden in their many collaborative endeavors while maintaining the global leadership he enjoys and that France expects, and how to try to find a signature French and European on some issues Maintain position.
So far, Macron’s response to this challenge has shown irritation at the recognition Biden has received for his international initiatives, as well as obvious attempts to adjust the way the US government operates, adjust the way the US government works, and once again have a more sensible partner in Washington.
Even before Biden took office, Macron seemed to be trying to preemptively set elements of the international agenda. Late last year he launched the idea of a “Paris Consensus” – a set of priorities for the 21st century that went beyond the economically oriented Washington Consensus of the 20th century.
Similarly, France backed an EU decision to press ahead with an investment deal with China just weeks before Biden’s inauguration – despite the US president’s team making it clear that the EU would wait.
Since Biden took office, Macron has stated many times that it is the US 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 Trump’s support.
Macron was also keen to maintain a clear European approach to the world’s biggest problems, even at the risk of being perceived as the towering Biden.
In April, a few days before the Biden climate summit, Macron hosted a tripartite summit video call with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the same topic.
The official French line was that Macron had informed the US of his plans to hold such talks in an attempt to get China to increase its climate commitments when Biden’s special envoy on climate John Kerry visited Macron in Paris.
But at least for some, the Elysée 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 roundtable. American officials were privately confused by the news.
Macron also tried to gain a role through the UN in the recent outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict by trying to propose a Security Council resolution for a ceasefire – although the US had blocked a previous one and was keen to keep the conflict bilateral to solve.
The one-upmanship goes both ways.
In May, Biden overshadowed a European Council summit in Portugal by announcing that he was in favor of renouncing patents on COVID-19 vaccines to make access easier for poorer countries.
Its European allies were surprised, especially Germany and France, who did not support the patent measure and instead urged the US to donate cans and lift export bans on vaccine components to help poorer countries faster.
Asked at a press conference whether Biden had claimed moral leadership regarding solidarity with COVID-19 vaccines by supporting patent waiver, Macron was visibly upset. He insisted that the US catch up with Europe in terms of solidarity and accused the European press of an inferiority complex towards the US
“If the US follows us, which is actually happening … They say, ah, the US is in the lead!” Macron told reporters, “You make me think you’re waking up, you haven’t been watching the movie.”
Late Wednesday, ahead of the G7 summit, which will focus heavily on the coronavirus pandemic, both sides seemed to be growing together. Macron expressed support for the waiver of vaccine patents to help end the coronavirus pandemic, while Biden got ready to announce plans to purchase 500 million doses of BioNTech / Pfizer vaccines for distribution to other nations.
On a personal level, it depends less on Macron’s relationship with Biden than on Trump. Biden governs more collegially than Trump and delegates much more to high officials.
Still, personal relationships between executives are critical when their employees cannot overcome differences.
At first glance, Macron, the aspiring child prodigy with little folk appeal, and the down-to-earth Biden – who has been in politics longer than the French president – are very different. But politically they are not that far apart on many issues; both can be viewed as centrist pragmatists. And personally they have at least one thing in common: They are both married to teachers.
Meanwhile, French officials are also having to readjust to deal with the full spectrum of the huge American administration, including the State Department, National Security Council and Congress, after Macron dealt mostly with Trump on all major issues for more than three years.
Both French and American officials claim that the cooperation between the two countries – between diplomats, advisers, ministers and presidents – is profound, far-reaching, 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, such as the use of the French language by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in some international forums. Blinken spoke in French when he announced that the US would join the Christchurch Call, an initiative led by New Zealand and France to fight hate online.
But after four years of Trump’s unpredictability, French and other European officials are not taking the new administration’s warm words on international cooperation at face value. You are looking for specific actions.
Solidarity with vaccines will be a central theme of the G7 this weekend, and while the US and France are agreeing on the concept, they differ on how it can be achieved. French officials are waiting to see what the US delivers.
“Specifically, if we want to accelerate access to vaccines and increase production capacities, export barriers must be lifted,” said a Macron consultant in a sharp address to the USA. “We in the EU have no export barriers.”
French officials will also be watching to see if the US uses the EU-backed international COVAX initiative to donate the millions of doses of vaccine it previously announced to give to poorer countries.
“We will look to the US to see if they deliver or not,” said the consultant.
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