France looks to Biden era as Pompeo starts visit

A handout photo from the US State Department showing Mr Mike Pompeo (second from right) and Ms Jamie McCourt, US ambassador to France, at the Institut Montaigne in Paris last Saturday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A handout photo from the US State Department showing Mr Mike Pompeo (second from right) and Ms Jamie McCourt, US ambassador to France, at the Institut Montaigne in Paris last Saturday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PARIS • French President Emmanuel Macron will be forced to walk a diplomatic tightrope when he hosts US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a staunch defender of President Donald Trump, for talks this week while at the same time seeking to build relations with President-elect Joe Biden.

Mr Pompeo arrived in Paris last Saturday at the start of a seven-nation trip to United States allies.

America's top diplomat has been criticised for backing Mr Trump as he continues to make unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.

"There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration," a defiant Mr Pompeo told reporters moments after announcing his trip last week.

But world leaders have shown no doubt about whom they see as the victor, with Mr Macron among the first to congratulate Mr Biden and speak with him by phone.

Mr Pompeo has been critical of such overtures to Mr Biden, telling Fox News that such calls to Mr Biden were not objectionable if it was "just saying hi".

French presidential aides have stressed that it was Mr Pompeo who sought the meeting with Mr Macron and that it was granted "in full transparency with President-elect Joe Biden's team".

In a sign of the unease generated by his visit, no press conferences are planned after Mr Pompeo's meeting with Mr Macron and separate meeting with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian.

When asked whether Mr Pompeo would insist to allies that Mr Trump will remain in power, a senior US State Department official said he has a "broad strategy" in pursuit of US interests and that "he remains the Secretary of State".

In contrast to some other EU leaders, Mr Macron had sought from the outset to win over Mr Trump, making him guest of honour at Bastille Day celebrations in Paris in 2017. But analysts say the French leader has little to show for his efforts, with Mr Trump pulling the US out of the landmark 2015 Paris climate pact and the two leaders locking horns over Iran, trade and taxing of digital giants.

Now, there is ample scope for friction.

Mr Le Drian has said he would raise the concerns of France - which has been hit by a number of militant attacks - over Mr Trump's plans to speed up the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. "We don't think that should happen," Mr Le Drian said in a television interview.

Separately, Mr Macron has said that the European Union must push on with its efforts to develop the capacity to act independently in technology, international finance and defence.

In an interview with Paris-based policy journal Le Grand Continent, Mr Macron said EU leaders must not let the defeat of Mr Trump persuade them that they can return to relying on the US to underwrite European security and to defend the bloc's interests.

"The United States will only respect us as allies if we are earnest, and if we are sovereign with respect to our defence," Mr Macron said. "We need to continue to build our independence for ourselves."

The EU is also still trying to save a hard-won international deal to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Mr Trump ripped up.

Mr Pompeo, whose visit has the hallmarks of a farewell tour, had no official engagements in Paris over the weekend. He will also be visiting Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Georgia.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2020, with the headline 'France looks to Biden era as Pompeo starts visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe