Inside the ill-fitting, occasionally chaotic, decidedly solid Biden-Macron relationship

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PARIS — On a recent phone call with President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed sending Western forces into Ukraine to train troops in the war zone.

Biden was not supportive. The American president expressed concern about the potential consequences of sending troops from any NATO country into a place where they could wind up in the line of fire and lead to an escalation of the conflict, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

The call ended without any resolution.

And for Biden and Macron, that was okay.

Biden and Macron do not see eye to eye on several important issues: Macron has staked out an ostentatious role for himself as an advocate for European self-reliance and self-determination. The White House sees him as something of a wild card, and Macron has called for policy options in Ukraine that make the Biden administration nervous.

But in spite of their substantive and cultural differences — and across a yawning, 35-year age gap — the two men have come to trust each other in striking ways.

Aides on both sides of the Atlantic who have witnessed their private interactions insist there is a genuine warmth between the two leaders and their wives, who shared an intimate dinner at a Georgetown restaurant at the outset of Marcon’s state visit in December 2022. Biden accepting Macron’s invite for Saturday’s state visit, the only one he has agreed to in a busy election year, “speaks volumes” about Biden’s respect for the French president, one former administration official said.

But the state visit itself was a point of tension as recently as a week ago, as France and the U.S. battled over the timing and other matters, according to two people familiar with the negotiations granted anonymity to discuss planning. Macron, the people said, wanted the dinner to take place on Friday, but Biden’s plans to deliver a second speech in Normandy that evening made that a non-starter. Macron, on the eve of France’s EU elections, also wanted Biden to take part in a joint press conference, and was frustrated that the White House refused. An Élysée spokesperson denied any frustration.

And over the last few years, no European leader has been more outspoken about the continental imperative of what he initially called “strategic autonomy” — reducing the EU’s dependence on Washington to guarantee its collective security.

“The United States of America has two priorities. The United States of America, first and foremost, which is legitimate, and then the China issue,” Macron said in a major speech at Sorbonne University in April.

In the Sorbonne speech, Macron declared that Europe “is mortal,” warning that “it can die and whether it does depends entirely on our choices.” Many observers viewed the alarmist tone of Macron’s speech and subsequent interview with The Economist as an attempt to breathe more life into his own political standing. Polls show his centrist coalition losing ground to France’s far right ahead of an EU election this week.

“Macron is going to be talking to Biden at a time when he is very unpopular in his country and he’s trying to find the message that’s going to reflect his legacy,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of The Eurasia Group, a global risk assessment firm based in New York. “He’s getting more shrill — because he’s concerned.”

But there is a larger backdrop too: not just looming European Union elections but the possibility that Biden may fall to Donald Trump in November. Macron, who dispatched his prime minister to greet Biden when Air Force One landed at Orly on Wednesday morning, has pushed aggressively for the continent to take their collective defense more seriously — with an eye on the former president regaining power. He’s also tried harder than any of his counterparts to assert himself as the de facto leader of the European bloc following the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Not all European leaders are as willing to talk about the possible decline in U.S. leadership because they fear it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Camille Grand, a distinguished fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and former NATO assistant secretary general for defense investment. “The U.S. is polarized, as we saw with the delay of the supplemental funding package for Ukraine. China is America’s top security priority and with good reason. Washington’s commitment to European security is poised to at best stay the same and could ebb, so it makes sense for Europeans to assert more responsibility.”

Biden aides say that Macron’s calls for a stronger Europe align with the president’s own vision for the transatlantic alliance as it continues to adapt to a security environment upended by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “On the big, big issues, there’s a real sense of alignment,” said John Kirby, the national security council’s coordinator for strategic communications. “The president respects and appreciates that he has a perspective and a view that can’t be discounted. The president likes the fact that he’s willing to be candid, forthright and pretty blunt in his assessments.”

As much as Biden desires a united Europe and NATO, he understands, aides say, that countries may differ in their politics or approaches but that they share the same goal: denying Russian President Vladimir Putin an expanded empire. For that reason, Macron’s clear commitment to Ukraine and the bedrock democratic values that have for eight decades undergirded the transatlantic alliance has helped cement a relationship between him and the president, even if it is, at times, beset by tension.

In early 2022, as fears of Russia invading Ukraine mounted, Macron implored Biden and other NATO allies that he could personally dissuade Putin from starting a war, according to three administration officials. The Biden administration engaged in diplomacy with Russia, hoping the war could end at the negotiating table before it could begin on the battlefield. Few officials believed talks would stop Putin’s offensive, but it was better to be caught trying. Plus, Biden’s aides assessed, Russia would only seriously deal with NATO’s leader, the U.S., and not some European power.

Still, the White House was fine letting the French president try to negotiate with Putin, even if two administration officials said they doubted he’d succeed.

“Macron took it seriously that Putin was threatening to do something and he wanted to avoid it,” said Eric Green, the Biden national security council’s former director for Russia. As for why the White House was okay with Macron’s overtures to Putin, he added: “Our view was we didn’t want to have any regrets.”

Green called Macron “a unique, energetic personality.” But that is probably a polite assessment, given just the public record. In 2019, Macron declared that NATO was experiencing a “brain death.”

Last year, he told reporters on a flight back from China that France and other NATO allies shouldn’t “blindly” follow Washington’s China policy — after which he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in Paris.

But nothing piqued Macron more than the 2021 AUKUS agreement under which Australia pulled out of a deal to purchase nuclear submarines from France in favor of a new arrangement to procure them from the United Kingdom and the U.S. Macron’s foreign minister blasted the secretive deal, which was expected to cost France $65 billion, as “stab in the back” by the Australians and said that the Biden administration’s “brutal and unilateral decision resembles a lot of what Trump is doing.”

A U.S. official familiar with the spat said “it was a horrible time” and that “the French weren’t letting it go. It was such a low point.”

“There have been moments of reproaches,” said Christopher Weissberg, a French member of parliament who represents French nationals in the U.S..

“When the president returned from Beijing and said Europe should have its China policy, that did offend the Americans,” he added. “We’ve got our own economic interests, they understand that very well, but we’re aligned on defense matters”

On Saturday, the French president wants to again raise the fraught trade relations between the U.S. and Europe, according to a French presidency official. During his state visit in 2022, he slammed the Inflation Reduction Act and its clean energy subsidies as “super aggressive”, and lashed out at Sen. Joe Manchin (I-W.Va.), telling the influential lawmaker, “You’re hurting my country.”

Biden worked to quickly patch things up, acknowledging during a meeting with Macron that the deal was “clumsy” and that “it was not done with a lot of grace.”

While Biden may have rankled Macron with the AUKUS deal, the French president has occasionally returned the favor, ignoring Biden’s desire for NATO to march in lockstep and issuing public pronouncements in support of bolder moves in defense of Ukraine. According to two administration officials, Macron is the key remaining holdout among G-7 leaders on a U.S. plan to leverage interest from seized Russian assets in a loan to Ukraine. It’s a plan national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday was a “top priority” for Biden heading into Saturday’s talks and the G-7 next week, as aides would like to announce an agreement around that in Bari, Italy.

Macron also lobbied for sending coalition troops to Ukraine for training purposes, long before there was any kind of consensus around such a move. And he has questioned why NATO had completely ruled out the possibility of direct military involvement in Ukraine, despite fears that doing so could spark a far wider, more existential conflict.

Some foreign policy observers have applauded his directness.

“He’s been much more realistic than others in terms of just how involved Europe may need to get in Ukraine in order to make a real difference,” said Rachel Rizzo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “You can’t ignore the reality on the ground, and the reality is that Ukraine is an extremely difficult spot.”

Macron has also been skeptical of some of Biden’s bolder declarations. When the president tells a familiar story at private fundraisers — he recounts how Macron, in one of their initial 2021 meetings, responded skeptically to his vow that “America is back” by asking, “For how long?”

“Macron never bought the ‘America is back,’” said Mathieu Droin, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former deputy head of the strategic affairs unit at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. “He is probably more lucid than most European leaders about the structural changes that the U.S. is undergoing, both in terms of electorate priorities, and of long-term foreign policy, in which the place of Europe will irreversibly decline.”

The war in Gaza has further tested Biden and Macron’s foreign policy alignment, as Israel, a major ally of both the U.S. and France, has ignored their pleas for restraint and more deliberate efforts to limit civilian casualties. Just last week, France’s armed forces ministry banned Israeli defense companies from taking part in a major arms show, one of its most concrete steps yet to signal its disapproval over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war.

But for all this, Biden and his top national security aides have been mostly nonchalant about the French president’s more pointed criticisms and broader efforts to be a main character on the world stage. At the end of the day, the White House trusts Macron and is confident he’s on their team. And they know that, given America’s unmatched military capability and outsized role in world affairs, any freelancing by Macron or other leaders will be taken with a grain of salt.

One U.S. official, who was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, put it bluntly: “The collective reaction here is kind of like a shrug.”

Clea Caulcutt, Alexander Ward and Matt Berg contributed to this report.