Transatlantic Take

Trump’s Legacy Complicates Biden’s Relationship with France

Matthew Teasdale
5 min read
Photo credit: RossHelen /
How will Donald Trump’s legacy frame President Joe Biden’s policy toward France? Trump set the precedent for a foreign policy that is economically nationalistic and seeks to promote U.S. businesses abroad.

How will Donald Trump’s legacy frame President Joe Biden’s policy toward France? Trump set the precedent for a foreign policy that is economically nationalistic and seeks to promote U.S. businesses abroad. Biden is unlikely to change this reorientation, and France and the rest of Europe will continue to be on the bad end of U.S. tariffs. Trump’s legacy is also an international order where the United States is a weakened international leader and remains distanced from Europe on China. Biden and President Emmanuel Macron will nonetheless work together on reassembling key defense treaties with Europe, on the Middle East, and on nuclear weapons.

Trump steered the United States toward economic nationalism. Biden’s agenda will do the same. He calls for creating 2 million manufacturing jobs by 2025 and includes schemes to bolster small and medium sized manufacturers. Biden has also proposed a $400 billion procurement investment plan to stimulate domestic industries. Advisors like Katherine Tai and Jared Bernstein argue that global trade needs to meet the needs of ordinary people.

Biden inherits this protectionism and hints that the tariffs on EU goods will not be lifted anytime soon. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said that “there is an objective problem […] with the EU in terms of a persistent, growing imbalance in agricultural goods [and pointed to] rules that prevent us from selling goods where we are very competitive.” This does not bode well for France considering that it is the largest agriculture producer in the EU.

The penchant for protecting U.S. businesses under Trump will also continue into the Biden administration. Biden will not exit the Phase 1 Agreement with China, which protects U.S. companies from intellectual property theft abuses like forced technology transfer. After the United States reimposed tariffs on the United Arab Emirates, Biden spoke to President Xi Jinping on continuing a dialogue over unfair trade practices. France’s new digital services tax, which affects U.S. technology companies like Google and Amazon, almost led to counter U.S. tariffs of 25 percent on $1.3 billion of French goods.

Any move to change current U.S. tariffs are likely to face significant backlash from the Republicans in Congress. As a result of the ongoing the Airbus-Boeing dispute, France will still have to deal with a 15 percent tariff on aircraft parts like fuselages and wings. There will also be an additional 25 percent tariff that will cost the French wine and cognac industry an estimated €1 billion in sales.

Trump’s economic nationalism will continue to haunt France, but the country will nonetheless be able to work with a reengaged United States. Biden will have to cope with Trump having left the United States a weaker international leader and in an isolated and competitive relationship with China. New cooperation will be found, though, on restoring security structures like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, the New START Treaty, and NATO.

Biden will have to cope with weakened U.S. leadership internationally. If the United States rejoins the JCPOA, he will likely face backlash, not only from Israel as Barack Obama did, but from Gulf allies including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. This will, however, go down well with France, which has recently expressed an urgent desire for the United States to rejoin the treaty.

Additionally, the values-based approach that the Biden administration is aiming for will not sit well with France and is contradicted by Trump’s legacy. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned against creating a values-based bloc against Russia and China, preferring issue-based coalitions instead. The aftermath of last November presidential elections and the recent storming of the Capitol in Washington have left its allies like France wondering how much credibility the United States has in hosting a Summit for Democracy.

The United States’ haranguing of NATO members will be less confrontational with Biden than with Trump, but reciprocity will still be expected. Macron’s decision last month to withdraw about 600 troops from the Sahel will not be welcome in Washington. But, as Biden said during his recent Munich Security Conference speech, the United States is fully committed to NATO and to its EU partners—a positive for France the EU.

A divided transatlantic approach to China is also likely to linger. After the EU ignored the United States before signing its investment deal with China, France touted European strategic autonomy. Macron has also urged European countries not gang up against China and called for working with it on intellectual property, climate, and eventually human rights. Biden, to the contrary, has created a China Task Force and asked the Pentagon to assess defense strategies vis-à-vis the United States’ rival.

Biden also inherits a world that faces a greater threat from nuclear weapons. Trump pulled the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which has now lapsed. Biden’s renewal of the New START suits France’s hopes for non-proliferation and arms control. Biden is quiet, though, on renegotiating the Open Skies Treaty after Trump’s decision, which France bemoaned, to withdraw the United States from it.

Trump leaves Biden a legacy that will mean mixed relations with France. On the one hand, France is likely to continue to suffer with the rest of Europe in facing a protectionist United States. On the other, Macron and Biden will work together to rebuild international security despite the two countries’ strategic priorities remaining crossed.