Friday, and it was hard to tell whether we were witnessing a clash of civilizations or a reconvergence. After a state dinner with Joe Biden in Washington, France's president Emmanuel Macron touched down in New Orleans, that most French of American cities, where he was greeted on the tarmac by a jazz band. If you've ever wanted to see a Frenchman cut a rug, now is your chance (though it was Macron's wife Brigitte who seemed the looser of the two).
From there, Macron was off to the French Quarter, where he received a personal tour...
Friday, and it was hard to tell whether we were witnessing a clash of civilizations or a reconvergence. After a state dinner with Joe Biden in Washington, France’s president Emmanuel Macron touched down in New Orleans, that most French of American cities, where he was greeted on the tarmac by a jazz band. If you’ve ever wanted to see a Frenchman cut a rug, now is your chance (though it was Macron’s wife Brigitte who seemed the looser of the two).
From there, Macron was off to the French Quarter, where he received a personal tour from New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell. And really, I just hope they did it right. I hope they took him to Bourbon Street and emerged on that one block with Larry Flynt’s strip club and the giant sign: “Relax. It’s just sex.” (Told you it was French.) Macron reportedly had a great time in New Orleans and was thronged by crowds all the while. The Big Easy’s jazzy culture might seem the opposite of French hauteur, but then our two countries are never as far apart as we like to think.
Americans and French have stereotypes of each other that are so over-the-top as to be tongue-in-cheek — cheese-eating surrender monkeys versus uncultured swine, nihilists in turtlenecks versus cowboys in CGI. Yet even these caricatures are born out of similarity. Both the US and France are nationalistic cultures, with a habit of sometimes thinking the worst of others. Both are Enlightenment nations that prize reason and secularism (though understood in different ways). Both are also known to be straight talkers in global affairs, which often irks other countries, including each other.
And both are led by so-called “liberal” men, unpopular back home yet the faces of great economic and political powers abroad (with Angela Merkel gone, Macron is now the most authoritative leader in the EU). So it was that before the New Orleans stop, Biden and Macron met in Washington for what was Biden’s first state dinner, and accounts indicate a good time was had by all. The pair reportedly stayed up chatting until 1 a.m., a good six hours past Biden’s bedtime. Biden was said to have defended the virtues of hot dogs. Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski even left early, always a sign of a sufferable Washington soiree.
For Biden and Macron, it was an opportunity to be away from their toughest critics, which is to say their voters (Biden’s approval rating stands at 42 percent, Macron’s at 30 percent). Yet if the two men bonded over Oscar Meyer wieners, they were also joined in a common delusion: that green is the future. The two reportedly spent a good deal of time discussing climate change, as one might have expected. Macron even made it a theme of his visit to New Orleans, signing an environmental “memorandum of understanding” with the state of Louisiana.
This obsession with all things green is so strong that it recently led to a rift between America and Europe. Back in the summer, Biden signed into law the farcically named Inflation Reduction Act, a massive spending package that dumps money into America’s clean energy industry and incentivizes consumers to buy American. This touched off fears that the US was violating the Queensberry rules of fair trade, and the Europeans threatened to return the favor, to subsidize their own green companies to protect them from unfair transatlantic competition. On Thursday, Biden did pledge at a press conference to make “tweaks” to the IRA — except “I’m just a bill” and all that. Only Congress can meaningfully alter the law, and congressional Democrats have already said a hard no.
In which case, for all the bonhomie, it remains possible that the US and EU could end up in something like a trade war. And all over…windmills. Actually, not just windmills. Also electric car batteries whose cobalt is harvested by African wage slaves. We keep hearing we’re on the cusp of a green industrial revolution, yet according to the Department of Energy, 61 percent of all American electricity still comes from fossil fuels while a further 19 percent is from nuclear; only 20 percent is from renewables. And while sales of electric vehicles are on the rise, only 1 percent of all the cars and light trucks in America are EVs.
It’s natural gas that has made the United States cleaner and more energy-independent (Biden, of course, has done nothing to help, canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline as one of his first acts in office). In Europe, the issue is even more urgent. Closing nuclear plants in the name of saving the planet has only made the continent more dependent on Russian natural gas. And now that Vladimir Putin has shut off the spigot amid his war in Ukraine, those same Europeans find themselves dependent on American exports, grumbling all the while.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, one that two countries founded on Enlightenment principles really ought to be able to decode. Something about the world still running on fossil fuels and elite climate eschatology never really catching on with everyone else. Instead we’re risking damage to, among other things, America’s oldest alliance. Is it any wonder there’s one last commonality between our two countries: credible right-wing populist movements?