WASHINGTON — After a three-year hiatus, the White House is once again hosting an official state dinner and will use the occasion to smooth over differences with the oldest of U.S. allies, France.
President Joe Biden will welcome his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, on Thursday night for a pomp-filled ritual that had been one more casualty of pandemic lockdowns.
The face-to-face diplomacy actually began Wednesday night, when Biden and first lady Jill Biden escorted Macron and his wife, Brigitte, to dinner at Fiola Mare, a tony restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront whose specialty is Italian food. A tweet posted on Biden’s account showed the two leaders with spoons in hand hovering over what looks to be dessert, sitting across an oval table from the first ladies.
But the formal state dinner is the centerpiece of Macron’s visit, a chance for the two men to toast each other and their respective countries and strengthen ties that have frayed amid disputes over trade and national security. They’ll dine on butter-poached Maine lobster, beef with shallot marmalade, and American artisanal cheeses — a menu chosen with scrupulous attention to the guests’ palates.
“Any time you go to a dinner party at someone’s house and they ask you whether you have any dietary restrictions, think about a state visit,” Rufus Gifford, the chief of protocol for the United States, said in an interview. “That is the case — and then some.”
The dinner is also an opportunity for Biden to repair a strained relationship of another sort: Democratic donors and fundraisers have complained they’ve been largely ignored in his presidency. As he looks ahead to a potential re-election bid, Biden is stepping up his overtures to the people who will help bankroll a 2024 campaign. Among those receiving coveted invitations to the dinner are Christopher Korge, chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s finance committee, and Virginia McGregor, deputy national finance chair, people familiar with the guest list said.
More of Biden’s longtime supporters are expected to attend Macron’s arrival ceremony Thursday morning on the White House’s South Lawn. After greeting his counterpart, Biden will take him into the Oval Office for a meeting where they are expected to discuss Russia’s war with Ukraine, threats posed by China and a stubborn set of differences between the U.S. and its European allies. They will then hold a joint news conference.
“It makes sense for Biden to reach out to the French in this way,” said Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for Europe in the George W. Bush administration. “The Americans and French can drive each other crazy, but we need each other.”
“The Biden administration quite rightly understands that to deal with China and Russia, the two authoritarian powers, you need a strong Europe with you,” he added. “You need France.”
Macron has made plain his unhappiness over one of Biden’s signature legislative achievements, the Inflation Reduction Act, which earmarks hundreds of billions of dollars to combat climate change. The measure includes a slew of subsidies, incentives and requirements aimed at shifting production of electric vehicles and their components to North America. Macron and other world leaders worry that the new law penalizes European companies and amounts to a protectionist trade policy. Meeting privately with lawmakers Wednesday, Macron called the act “super aggressive,” Reuters reported.
It seems doubtful he’ll find much sympathy among U.S. lawmakers eager to create more jobs at home.
Rep. Dan Kildee, D.-Mich., said in an interview that “our European partners have long engaged in substantial investments in their own production technologies. And that’s a good thing. But the United States can’t be in a position where we have to be consigned to the consumer function in the global economy. We went too long without investing in our own productive capacity.”
Nor does it seem Biden will give much ground on this front. Speaking in Michigan on Tuesday, he sounded not the least bit defensive as he described his efforts to expand American manufacturing jobs even if it comes at other nations’ expense. He mentioned that both China and Europe are “a little upset,” but went on to say that the U.S. doesn’t want to be “held hostage” to supply chain disruptions that made it tough for Americans to buy products during the pandemic.
“We’re going to be the supply chain,” he said, sounding a triumphal note. “And the difference is going to be, we’re going to make that supply chain available to the rest of the world.”
A counterargument that the Biden administration is likely to make to Macron is that Europe stands to gain from large-scale investments in alternative energy. In reply to a question from NBC News, John Kirby, the White House’s National Security Council spokesman, said Wednesday that “a clean energy transition is a rising tide that truly does lift all boats, and that’s how we view it.”
Another point of disagreement with Macron involves a submarine deal last year that Biden has conceded was “clumsy” in its execution. France felt blindsided by the U.S. sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. In doing so, the Biden administration elbowed out France, which had thought it would make the sale.
The state dinner may be the Biden administration’s way of apologizing for an unforced error of such magnitude, Fried said.
“That was diplomatic malpractice,” he said. “We owed the French one after that.”
State dinners often reflect the personal tastes and political needs of the first family. The tradition of honoring a visiting head of state began when President Ulysses S. Grant hosted King Kalākaua of Hawaii in 1874.
At the last state dinner in 2019 at which then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was the guest of honor, Donald Trump’s invited guests included Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo of Fox News, the conservative network important to Trump’s rise.
Trump also hosted Macron for a state dinner in 2018, though his tenure was marked by a dismissive approach toward European allies he saw as exploiting U.S. trade practices.
Biden hopes to send a different message — reassuring Macron that whatever the squabbles of the moment, France is an enduring partner.
“There have been chapters — some quite recently — where we didn’t necessarily treat our allies with dignity and respect,” Gifford said. “This dinner will focus very much on the historical relationship between the French and the U.S., but also the future.”