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Covering Kamala Harris Covering Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris has a brief moment of levity in France, then returns to reality

French President Emmanuel Macron faces Vice President Kamala Harris in conversation on a cobblestone street
French President Emmanuel Macron greets Vice President Kamala Harris before ceremonies marking the 103rd anniversary of Armistice Day on Nov. 11 in Paris.
(Ludovic Marin / Associated Press)

It was not until the final hour of a five-day trip to Paris that Vice President Kamala Harris was seen speaking French to an ordinary Parisian.

Her stop at E. Dehillerin Cookware Shop in Paris — where Julia Child was known to buy her pots and pans — followed a solemn gesture laying flowers and meeting with the proprietor of Carillon Café, one of the sites of the 2015 terrorist attacks that killed 130 people.

The efforts at cultural diplomacy, which did not appear on Harris’ official schedule, drew curiosity and excitement on the streets as her motorcade wandered off the wide downtown boulevards and into Paris’ narrow neighborhoods.

These brief moments showed Harris at her most relaxed and engaged. And, as Harris faces another tough stretch in her vice presidency, I couldn’t help wondering why she doesn’t find more of them.

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Bonjour and welcome to Essential Politique, Kamala Harris edition. Today, I will discuss how Harris’ trip to France last week illustrates her limits and potential as a politician and diplomat and why she often appears so hemmed in as vice president.

Brief spontaneity

The sojourn to the cookware shop, like almost every other part of any vice president’s life, was at least partly choreographed. But there was an element of spontaneity that often feels missing in Harris’ public moments. It was one of the few times she encountered people outside of a government building or a sterile laboratory.

The press watched as Harris and her husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, walked into the store. She bantered about her love of cooking and her Thanksgiving recipes. She made fun of Emhoff for nearly burning down the house when he tried to use the stove.

Then she was seen briefly speaking French to employees as she perused the copper-colored pans on the walls.

(Harris spent her teenage years in Montreal and learned French, but is not comfortable enough with the language to speak it in diplomatic settings.)

After about 20 minutes inside, Harris came out and answered more questions from reporters — about Ukraine and French diplomacy.

Before she walked back into the vice presidential limo, she heard cheers from people eating lunch at nearby cafes. Earlier, one of my colleagues in the press pool saw a father and son run alongside the motorcade to catch a glimpse.

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One mission: Avoiding gaffes

Was this the most important aspect of Harris’ trip? No. But it mattered.

Harris was in France to repair relations with America’s oldest ally after its leaders felt embarrassed and blindsided by the Biden administration after it joined the United Kingdom in a defense pact with Australia. The deal, which was announced in September and took Paris by surprise, left the French out of an agreement to build diesel submarines for Australia. The U.S.-backed pact (known as AUKUS) will allow Australia to deploy sophisticated, nuclear-powered subs.

Harris’ job in France was primarily symbolic — solidifying ties between the old allies and giving French President Emmanuel Macron a political boost by showing up. President Biden had already taken the more substantive step of hashing out the disagreement with Macron and issuing a joint statement aimed at soothing French anger when the two met in the Vatican City late last month. Biden also admitted the U.S. had handled the matter in a “clumsy” way.

In other words, connecting with the French public was part of Harris’ mission.

Harris attracted interest in the French media earlier in the trip, when she met with Macron at the Élysée Palace and observed Armistice Day at the Arc de Triomphe. But she did not generate as much widespread excitement as she might have.

I spoke before and after the trip with Rebecca Amsellem, a women’s rights activist in Paris who runs a media company. She is interested in America’s first female and Black and Indian American vice president, but heard little about the visit from friends. Nor did she see many stories in the media, which she found surprising.

Why didn’t Harris’ staff leave room for encounters with more French people earlier in the trip? And why were there no French media interviews?

The answer: Harris and her advisors were almost single-mindedly focused on avoiding gaffes.

You can blame this on Harris’ first foreign trip, to Guatemala and Mexico, when she was torched for giving an answer that appeared to be flip when she was asked during a network television interview why she had not yet visited the U.S.-Mexico border. Harris’ poll numbers have only declined since then.

This trip seemed designed to avoid such missteps. It would have been risky, in the eyes of Harris’ advisors, to let the press pool watch the vice president go shopping, eating out or even walking around outside of her hotel. Even if it may have drawn interest among the French people, the headlines back home could have been tough: Harris takes a vacation in Paris!

Harris’ advisors were thrilled she made it out of France without any apparent gaffes.

But even that low bar did not protect her from tough stories in the U.S. media.

Not long after she returned home on Saturday, CNN published a lengthy article, detailing “entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus” that has led to tension between Harris’ team and Biden’s advisors.

That story led to another round of tough coverage, though this time it had nothing to do with her conduct on the trip. Nevertheless, the resulting stories overshadowed le voyage.

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The view from Washington

— Harris on Friday brushed aside suggestions that Democrats need to change course following last week’s poor election performances, saying the party has since engaged in “a robust dialogue and discussion” and she believes that passing the Biden administration’s agenda will win over voters.

— Biden on Monday signed a historic $1-trillion bipartisan bill that he said will overhaul the nation’s infrastructure and boost the economy, reports Erin B. Logan. Plus, here’s what California stands to receive.

— From Jennifer Haberkorn: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said Tuesday she would not run for reelection next year, the latest House Democrat to retire in the face of what could be a difficult election cycle for the party. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the longest-serving member of the Senate, also will not seek reelection.

— Also from Haberkorn: Leahy’s decision would make California Sen. Dianne Feinstein the Senate’s senior Democrat and potentially move her into the presidential line of succession.

— Longtime Trump ally Stephen K. Bannon appeared before a judge on Monday to face criminal contempt charges for defying a subpoena from Congress’ Jan. 6 committee, then declared combatively outside court that he was “taking on the Biden regime” in fighting the charges.

— Since the pandemic and the increase in people working from home, the use of employee-monitoring programs has been growing rapidly, reports Don Lee. What monitoring tools employers utilize and how aggressively they deploy them vary widely. But the practice has alarmed unions and privacy advocates.

— Progressive Democrats have never been shy about fighting for what they want, writes Nolan D. McCaskill. But their aggressive tactics in the recent fight over a massive social safety-net package surprised many in their own party, raising questions about whether the tougher stance was an anomaly or a sign of battles to come.

— New opinion polls show that while Americans remain divided over abortion, most do not entirely agree with either side in a case heading to the Supreme Court next month, reports David G. Savage.

The view from California

— Amazon has agreed to pay $500,000 to better enforce state consumer protection laws after California’s attorney general said the company has concealed COVID-19 case numbers from its workers. It’s the first such action under the state’s new “right to know” law meant to improve workplace safety, reports Suhauna Hussain.

— A petition for the recall of Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León was terminated at the request of its leading proponent, but the effort could begin anew in January.

— More than four months after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was announced as Biden’s pick to become U.S. ambassador to India, the mayor is still waiting for a hearing and vote before a key Senate committee that will consider his nomination, reports Dakota Smith. As part of their review of Garcetti, senators are scrutinizing allegations stemming from a sexual harassment lawsuit against the city involving Garcetti’s former advisor.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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