Transatlantic Take

Biden’s Victory Means Cautious Optimism in Paris

Milan Seghier
5 min read
Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock
Following the election of Joe Biden, the feeling in Paris is one of cautious optimism.

Following the election of Joe Biden, the feeling in Paris is one of cautious optimism. France will welcome the return of the United States in the multilateral world order but will also expect this not to hinder its drive to strengthen Europe’s strategic autonomy. Its main priority is to reset the transatlantic relationship around a shared agenda on climate change, data, trade, and terrorism.

Fighting climate change will be a priority for Biden, who has announced his intention to rejoin the Paris Agreement immediately. This aligns with the trends signaled by French and U.S. public opinion in the Transatlantic Trends 2020 survey, which identified climate change as one of the most pressing global challenges, requiring closer transatlantic cooperation.

On trade, France was just slapped with U.S. tariffs on French products and expects smoother trade ties with under a Biden administration. The fight on big tech led by the European Commission is supported by Paris, which will not waver. France expects its intentions to tax the U.S. digital giants to find support within the Biden administration.

On terrorism and foreign policy, France will look for a reliable military partner in the United States, especially concerning West Africa and the Middle East. The Biden administration continuing with President Donald Trump’s commitment to “end America’s endless wars” will influence France to strategically redefine its engagements abroad.

Overall, France remains wary of how efficient the incoming administration will be in rebuilding trust. Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has already warned that “nothing will ever be like before.” This sends a clear warning to the next administration that it should spend considerable time working toward rebuilding the transatlantic relationship, well beyond communicating that everything is going back to normal. Additionally, while welcoming the return of U.S. global leadership, France might regret that some of its efforts to alert European countries to the need to rethink Europe as a geopolitical power might be trumped by an ambitious return of Washington in European affairs. In any case, this reset expected by Paris might not happen right away, as the Biden administration’s focus will most likely be on domestic issues.

France has been and will remain one of the United States’ key allies. It will welcome a return to the Paris Agreement and will definitely push for an overhaul of the relationship with Iran. Greater caution coming from Paris can be expected, too, as the last four years have proven, again, that any long-standing efforts to work toward common goals can be easily reverted with executive orders implemented by a later U.S. administration. France will remain a stable pillar of the multilateral world order, but it will not hesitate to stand its ground on some key national interests such as the issue of taxing U.S. tech companies.

Despite the deep ideological divides separating Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Trump, “America first” proved useful to France, which showed an increased appetite for working with Europe first. Trump’s criticism of NATO bolstered Macron’s push for European strategic autonomy and invocation of the need to focus on common interests. Yet, despite some proposals, especially in the realm of defense where France launched the European Intervention Initiative, European countries remain divided. France has managed to slowly push its European partners, including Germany, toward a more ambitious definition of European sovereignty, but many still favor the United States’ security umbrella and NATO, regardless of who sits in the White House. For example, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany led Warsaw to propose their relocation to Poland and the establishment of “Fort Trump.” This divide between the EU countries and temptations to bilateralize collective security will carry on in the next years. France’s priority in the upcoming four years will be to keep on trying to mobilize and structure the EU strategic debate. It worries that the signals sent by a Biden administration that “America is back in the game” might put an end to this momentum.

Given that Europe’s “wake up” moment never really arrived, in spite of a few initiatives and proposals—the United States’ return might mean apathy or inaction from countries that were anxiously waiting for it to “be back in the game.” Partners blindly aligning themselves with Washington’s interests will be met with pushback in Paris. Preventing such frictions will require a clear iteration of the next administration’s strategic interests in Europe, allowing France to clearly position itself and rethink its European strategy.

Many divergences between France and the United States preceded the Trump administration: President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia was perceived as an acceleration of declining interest in European affairs. “Leading from behind” in Libya and the “red line” episode in Syria remain stark reminders for Paris that Europeans need to seriously think about their security without necessarily always including the United States.

France’s push for more strategic independence means that it will not necessarily be aligned with U.S. interests. For instance, Macron’s push to reset the relationship between Paris and Moscow has been conducted without too much interference from Washington, but the next administration might not be as conciliatory. Moreover, frictions between France and Turkey will remain, and Paris will expect the Biden administration to be tougher with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose latest success in Nagorno-Karabakh, with NATO remaining on the sidelines, does not bode well for the future of the Franco-Turkish relationship.

This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.