France Tries to Get Onside With Washington Ahead of First State Visit

Foreign Policy talked with the French ambassador about energy, the war, and looming trade tensions.

By , an independent journalist based in New York.
Philippe Etienne, the French ambassador to the United States, speaks during a reception.
Philippe Etienne, the French ambassador to the United States, speaks during a reception.
Philippe Etienne, the French ambassador to the United States, speaks during a reception in Washington on Dec. 1, 2021. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Netflix

French President Emmanuel Macron will be trailed by a sizable entourage on his state visit to Washington this week, the first of the Biden administration. He has brought cabinet ministers, writers, two astronauts, a test pilot, a ballet dancer, and business moguls.

What is even rarer is that it’s the second time that Macron has been so honored. In 2018, he was also the first foreign leader to be invited for a state visit in the Trump era. There will be pomp and pageantry, from a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to a rendition of both national anthems on the White House South Lawn. But there will still be plenty of time for politics.

“A state visit is the highest possible level of engagement between two countries,” said Philippe Etienne, the ambassador of France to the United States. “This will underline the depth of the partnership between France and the United States as the ‘oldest allies.’ But it will also be an opportunity to review together, at the highest level, the many challenges that our two countries are facing right now.”

French President Emmanuel Macron will be trailed by a sizable entourage on his state visit to Washington this week, the first of the Biden administration. He has brought cabinet ministers, writers, two astronauts, a test pilot, a ballet dancer, and business moguls.

What is even rarer is that it’s the second time that Macron has been so honored. In 2018, he was also the first foreign leader to be invited for a state visit in the Trump era. There will be pomp and pageantry, from a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to a rendition of both national anthems on the White House South Lawn. But there will still be plenty of time for politics.

“A state visit is the highest possible level of engagement between two countries,” said Philippe Etienne, the ambassador of France to the United States. “This will underline the depth of the partnership between France and the United States as the ‘oldest allies.’ But it will also be an opportunity to review together, at the highest level, the many challenges that our two countries are facing right now.”

Foreign Policy talked with Etienne in his office at the French Embassy in Washington about the allied response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, energy security in Europe, and economic competition between allies. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Let’s start at the top. Europeans will be struggling to pay higher energy costs this winter, yet the European Union recently agreed on an eighth package of sanctions against Russia. Will energy security be the focus of the exchanges this week?

Philippe Etienne: Because of the brutal Russian aggression, we will have to discuss the different aspects of our policies: sanctions, the implementation of sanctions, energy—also, of course, adapting our support to Ukraine itself. So the French and Ukrainian presidents have decided to host a conference of international donors in Paris on Dec. 13. The United States will take part. We want to reach out to many countries to participate in this donor conference to support Ukrainian resilience through this winter—in particular, the civilian infrastructure, the electricity, water, and sanitation systems that are targeted by the Russian bombings.

FP: If Ukraine had better air defense systems, it wouldn’t need to rebuild its civilian infrastructure almost daily. 

PE: You’re right, these different aspects are interrelated. So you cannot consider them independently. The conference in Paris will be focused on the resilience aspects, but we must simultaneously address the evolution of the military needs. 

FP: Macron has said repeatedly that Russia’s war in Ukraine must end at the negotiating table and not on the battlefield. More recently, he said China might have a role to play in negotiations.

PE: But of course. China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. So, let’s be serious. Shall we just say China has nothing to do with it? Come on. They have a responsibility, at least as a permanent member of the Security Council, and they themselves say they are attached to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

FP: How does France envision any eventual negotiations to end this heightened conflict? Should NATO be at the center? Does it require an international approach?

PE: The aggression comes from Russia. We must never forget who is attacked and who is attacking. So, of course, the Ukrainians have to decide when they are ready to negotiate. Ukraine will need some guarantees of security. Ukrainians very often say the war didn’t begin in 2022 but in 2014. So, first we must decide who can provide security guarantees. Then we want to engage the whole global community. China but also other big emerging nations, African nations. Because it is not just a European problem. I’m sure this global dimension will be discussed during the state visit.

FP: Given that you’re a former ambassador to Romania, can you shed light on the reasons why France has sent troops and equipment to this country that borders both Ukraine and Moldova, another country where Russian troops occupy a portion of the territory, in so-called Transnistria?

PE: This is sometimes overlooked in evaluations of French support of Ukraine. We have decided to participate actively in the reinforcement of the eastern flank of NATO. Romania is a member state of the EU and NATO. Our defense minister and other members of our cabinet recently visited our military deployment in Romania. It’s really important. I am not responsible for the policy decisions, but I feel close to Romania having been an ambassador to Bucharest from 2002 to 2005.

FP: In other words, it’s a nice country but in a difficult neighborhood?

PE: Exactly. Romania is really at the forefront of this conflict. 

FP: You mention the global implications of the war, but surely, one of the biggest implications outside Ukraine is skyrocketing energy prices in Europe. Macron recently said in a television interview that he intends to negotiate with allies to reduce the price of liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports to Europe. But how can that be done when LNG is traded on free markets?

PE: We want to work together with United States, both the government but also the private sector, to see how we can address this in a way that is compatible with the interests of everybody. We are grateful that the United States provides Europe with LNG, but there are issues about the price. So you see it’s a series of questions that are politically sensitive. They’re economically very meaningful. They are technically complex. And we have to address these questions seriously with the United States so that we remain united. There are some people, especially in Moscow, who want to see us divided. We want to remain united. 

FP: Natural gas is a negligible part of the French energy grid mix, but to some European countries, it’s very important. Are you concerned that if natural gas prices remain high that would mean a recession in Germany that could lead to a European-wide recession? 

PE: Germany is the first economy in Europe, and Europe is an integrated market. So we’ve decided to have a policy of common purchases for natural gas, as we have been doing for vaccines in the COVID-19 crisis. We have to mitigate, in a balanced way, the effects of the war in such a way that Europe and the United States will come out stronger after this war. 

FP: The Biden administration’s stimulus plan has irked Europe. There are subsidies, tax credits—does Paris see this latest move as unfair or anti-competitive?

PE: It is an EU-wide problem. It is not a French problem. The United States must not misunderstand. In Europe, we are happy that the United States is moving toward implementing its climate goals. But there is built into this new act a number of tax credits that are discriminatory. We consider in the EU that they are incompatible with the World Trade Organization rules and they’re discriminatory against Europeans, your allies.

J. Alex Tarquinio is an independent journalist based in New York and the past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Twitter: @alextarquinio

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