Formal state visits to the United States are the highest form of diplomatic contact with a guest nation. The U.S. Department of State recognizes five categories of visits for foreign leaders – state visit, official visit, official working visit, working visit, and private visit – compared with four under French protocol: la visite d’Etat, “state visit”; le voyage officiel, “official trip”; le voyage de travail, “working trip”; and le voyage privé, “private trip.”) They generally involve lavish pomp and ceremony, with the aim of burnishing bilateral ties and showcasing the U.S.’s close relationship with its ally. In addition to sit-downs between heads of state, they allow Cabinet secretaries and senior politicians to discuss current issues with their counterparts.
Commenting on the upcoming visit by the French president and the First Lady, Brigitte Macron, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said it would “underscore the deep and enduring relationship between the United States and France, our oldest ally.” The invitation is also a clear sign that relations between the two countries have returned to an even keel after a major diplomatic crisis in 2021 caused by the surprise announcement of AUKUS, a security partnership between the U.S., the U.K., and Australia.
At the time, the French foreign minister accused the three parties to the deal of “duplicity, a major breach of trust, and contempt,” and briefly recalled – for the first time ever – the country’s ambassadors to the United States and Australia. Clearly alarmed at the backlash, the Biden administration made deliberate efforts to repair relations, eventually acknowledging that its handling of the affair had been “clumsy.” The admission confirmed the realization that AUKUS would affect France’s strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
Against this backdrop, the White House invitation is a strong sign that America has reappraised its relationship with France, with a view to the long term. (Mr. Biden has apparently not forgotten that when he declared “America is back,” Emmanuel Macron responded, “For how long?”) When asked why the French had been prioritized over other U.S. allies for the first state visit of the Biden presidency, Ms. Jean-Pierre replied that the two countries’ links were rooted in “shared democratic values, economic ties, and defense and security cooperation.”
The French media have been broadly positive in their response, emphasizing that state visits are the highest form of diplomatic contact and that Emmanuel Macron is President Biden’s first invitee. The visit has been described as a “strong signal” and even “historic,” since Mr. Macron will be the only president of the Fifth Republic to have made two state visits to the United States, in both cases as the incumbent’s first guest (he was hosted in April 2018 by Donald Trump, who famously, and undiplomatically, brushed dandruff from his guest’s shoulder).
Previous French presidents were honored only once: de Gaulle (1960), Georges Pompidou (1970), Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1976), François Mitterrand (1984), Jacques Chirac (1996), and François Hollande (2014). The only president not to have been invited was Nicolas Sarkozy. However, some commentators have suggested that the Americans are simply seeking to chouchouter (“mollycoddle”) Emmanuel Macron as a gesture of atonement for the diplomatic freeze caused by the so-called “sub snub.” Whatever the motives, though, the visit comes at a time when the U.S. needs Europe as a whole to stand firm with it during the Ukraine war and the resulting energy crisis. President Macron has been one of the leading voices in condemning Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
In the aftermath of Britain’s exit from the European Union, some observers have mused openly whether France might replace the U.K. as the beneficiary of America’s special relationship. The issue is not new, however: When President Barack Obama was asked the question during the state visit by Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, he gave an admirably diplomatic answer: “I have two daughters who are both gorgeous and wonderful, and that’s how I feel about my outstanding European partners.”
Nevertheless, as a recent joint statement underlines, France and the United States have together committed to ensure that “democracy delivers for their citizens, to uphold the rule of law and good governance, to defend the human rights and dignity of all individuals, and to counter injustice and inequality.” This state visit is yet another marker of that commitment.