Why Biden is good news for France

Joe Biden as US president should mean better US-France relations, says Anne-Lorraine Bujon, associate researcher on America for international affairs body Ifri

2 December 2020
By Liv Rowland

“Generally speaking, the Trump administration hasn’t shown much consideration for its allies,” said Anne- Lorraine Bujon, who is also editor of French current affairs magazine Esprit.

“European countries felt he disdained them – giving the impression he thought Nato was obsolete. And in commerce he has almost treated them as his enemies."

“In the case of France, there was a sense at the start that Macron was trying to create some kind of personal link with Trump, speaking ‘man to man’, to allow us nonetheless to continue working with the US on areas of common interest – which are numerous: the climate, the fight against terrorism, coordination between intelligence services, the fight against nuclear proliferation…"

“I recall a visit to America when Macron had hoped for a gesture from Trump on the Iran nuclear deal [intended to prevent development of nuclear weapons there], but he obtained nothing. After that, France took a more realistic position as to what it could – or could not – expect from them."

Hope for a better Franco-American relationship

“They aimed rather to limit the damage so the Franco-American relationship was ruined as little as possible by President Trump’s style of leadership.”

Ms Bujon said most analysts are now “very relieved” that Biden will be president and hope to see better relations with Europe and France. However, she said Franco-American relations have never been as good as they were before the early 2000s and the clash over the Iraq war. So, while relations should be more “normal” again, they will not necessarily be as good as under Obama, and relations then were not as warm as in the last century.

The issue of fairer taxation of the digital giants is among several where it is hoped Mr Biden will see more eye to eye with President Macron. Mr Trump had threatened retaliation against French products when France pushed for this.

“Biden said in a recent article that the US must again lead the free world to face up to big challenges of the 21st century, including climate change, saying he would rejoin the Paris Agreement, which is very important, and the fight against nuclear proliferation, so we hope we will be able to work with them again on Iran – and what he called ‘disruptive technologies’. While he’s favourable to innovation, I think he supports more regulation of the digital sector, which is a priority for the EU.”

However, Mr Biden has also said he wants to focus on “repairing the US” and “will be much occupied by domestic challenges”, Ms Bujon said.

In commercial relations, Trump was seen as “protectionist and nationalist”. Mr Biden is likely to be “more multilateral and respectful of alliances and rules”. However, he will still be “protective” of US interests, especially those of middle class Americans.

Ms Bujon does not expect to see negotiations on an overall EU-US trade deal, which halted under Trump, relaunched. She said, in reality, there are few tariff barriers between the two and negotiations were more on overall regulatory convergence, which had proved complicated.

“I think we could move towards more convergence, on health, the environment, the digital sector… but I doubt it’s a top priority for Biden or the EU to relaunch the talks [on an overall deal].”

Mr Biden and Mr Macron are politically 'very close'

Mr Biden and Mr Macron are politically “very close”, Ms Bujon said, which should help the relationship between the two.

“We must also not forget he has Irish origins. US foreign politics swung towards Asia under Obama but Biden is part of a generation for whom American influence was built firstly with Europe. He also says he wants to re-establish a ‘club of the democracies’ against authoritarian regimes. I’m thinking of China and Russia. He knows he needs Europe for that.

“I once shook his hand at an Ifri event, at the time of the Iraq War. I remember him as being extremely funny and warm, determined to repair the transatlantic relationship and well-disposed towards France.

“And if we look at his team of foreign affairs advisers, there are a number of younger, brilliant advisers who speak French fluently, like Antony Blinken [who lived in Paris as a child].”

We must also not assume that everything will be repaired with the wave of a magic wand

She said Europe would have to be prudent if Mr Biden was to create a “new Cold War” with China, and expected Europe and France to take sides. “We must maintain our ability to negotiate independently with China,” she said.

“We must also not assume that everything will be repaired with the wave of a magic wand. Europe is no longer necessarily the main concern of America and it is time for us to take ourselves in hand as a strategic power. The relationship with the US will be all the more fruitful if we take initiatives and don’t expect everything to come from America.

“The first thing to look for is for Biden to follow through with his promise about the Paris agreement – he said he would rejoin ‘on day one’. But we will have to be patient, as he only takes office on January 20.”

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