Macron’s Washington Agenda: Ukraine, Trade, and Energy

December 02, 2022
French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the United States this week provides another opportunity to repair the damage to Franco-American relations caused by last year’s surprise announcement of the trilateral AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) security pact.

President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the United States this week provides another opportunity to repair the damage to Franco-American relations caused by last year’s surprise announcement of the trilateral AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) security pact.

In the aftermath of fierce French backlash to that announcement, Macron met with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome to help restore trust in their countries’ bilateral relationship. Biden admitted in a shared communiqué after the talks that the revelation of the deal had been handled in a “clumsy” manner. He also reaffirmed the importance of a stronger and interoperable European defense sector, of robust collaboration with France in the Indo-Pacific, and of increased cooperation in the Sahel. Both countries agreed to launch several bilateral frameworks to cooperate on global security issues, including the US-France Defense Trade Strategic Dialogue and the US-France Bilateral Clean Energy Partnership.

Since that flourish, however, bilateral cooperation has stalled. The frameworks established after Rome achieved little of note after their first convenings. The war in Ukraine may have reinforced the US presence in Europe, but it did little for the French-American partnership. Paris and Washington have issued joint statements to reaffirm the countries’ shared commitment to Ukraine, but significant disagreement about the proper strategy to adopt vis-à-vis Russia exists. Macron has even criticized Biden for describing Putin as a “butcher” who could not be left in power, a declaration the French president considered a “verbal escalation” that compromised his negotiation attempts. The Biden administration, for its part, deems Macron too soft on Putin, particularly in light of Russian war crimes.

France’s low level of military support to Ukraine relative to that of other key European allies has also cost Paris much credibility in Washington. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, French support lags that of Estonia, whose GDP is less than one-eightieth of France’s. Officials in Paris dispute these figures. Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu last week affirmed that his country was one of Ukraine’s largest defense contributors, with €550 million spent on military aid amid €3 billion in total French assistance. But even the former figure, twice as high as the Kiel Institute’s, is dwarfed by the military contributions from Germany (€1.2 billion), Poland (€1.8 billion), the United Kingdom (€3.74 billion), and the United States (€27.65 billion). The French also argue that their support for Ukraine goes beyond the delivery of military hardware, but they rank only 6th and 7th, respectively, in terms of humanitarian and financial assistance, according to the Kiel Institute.

France Must Raise Its Standing in Washington

Considering these challenges, Macron is poised to bolster France’s standing in Washington by showcasing its value as an ally. Whether the country is perceived as the 13th-largest military contributor to Ukraine, as the Kiel Institute reports, or as the 5th-largest, as Lecornu argues, matters. Macron will, therefore, underline the importance of French weapons deliveries to Ukraine and seek to obtain US recognition of France’s contribution. France’s self-described position as a “balancing power” will also need clarifying to demonstrate that it does not undermine the country’s commitment to collective security. Rather, Macron will emphasize it demonstrates a desire to promote peace through dialogue.

The trip is still unlikely to solve major bilateral security and defense disagreements. The United States remains hostile to French efforts to integrate European defense industries. Washington sees that as an attempt to exclude US defense contractors from the European market. France’s recent withdrawal from Mali has also weakened Paris’ position as a frontline partner, further reducing chances for any security and defense cooperation.

An increased standing in Washington will nevertheless be an asset to Macron as he lobbies for other French and European interests. In this regard, the Inflation Reduction Act takes center stage. Though designed to promote the green transition by subsidizing US-based clean industries in the face of strong Chinese competition, the legislation is likely to wreak havoc on European businesses left vulnerable from the war in Ukraine, high energy prices, and inflation. Macron will argue that weakening European industries is not in the United States’ interest as it will only increase China’s economic leverage over the EU. Macron will aim at obtaining for Europe the same status as Canada and Mexico, but he and his European counterparts may have to settle for limited exemptions for certain highly strategic industries since Biden is unlikely to yield much on a landmark legislative victory. Macron is also expected to address high energy prices by requesting increased US liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to Europe. For France specifically, Macron will seek skilled American workers to help accelerate repairs to its nuclear power plants.

Macron’s challenges are numerous. At the same time, the clock is ticking. No “red wave” flooded Congress during the recent US midterms, but the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives suggests that the 2024 presidential election will be fraught, with a return to Trumpism possible. Without efforts to improve France’s standing in Washington, including among Republicans, Macron may lose an ally in the White House in two years. In this context, his December 1 meeting with Congress’ French Caucus, which is co-chaired by three Republican senators and one Democratic senator, will be key to future-proofing the bilateral relationship. Ultimately, increased French standing in Washington will benefit Macron twice over. It will make him a more credible and valuable ally to Biden and a potentially different Oval Office occupant in 2025, and it will place France in a good position to lead on global issues, in partnership with the United States.