Kamala Harris heads to Paris to mend fences with an old ally

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks with reporters at the Capitol.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks with reporters last week after a failed vote in the Senate on the bill for the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Vice President Kamala Harris will begin one of the highest-profile gestures in the Biden administration’s intense fence-mending mission with France on Tuesday when she arrives in Paris for several days of ceremonies and speeches designed to repair a rare fracture in the close relationship with America’s oldest ally.

The French have been fuming for months — even pulling their ambassador from Washington for several days in September — after the United States and the United Kingdom cut a deal to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, which then canceled a $65-billion contract to buy French-made submarines.

The French have insisted their pique is based not on money but on a sense of betrayal from longtime allies that blindsided them as they forged a new defense partnership in the Indo-Pacific region. Harris’ visit follows Biden’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron late last month at the Vatican before a gathering in Rome with the Group of 20 leaders from the world’s biggest economies.


Biden and Macron signed a lengthy declaration after Biden called the U.S. actions “clumsy.” Macron gave Biden qualified forgiveness. But Harris’ five-day trip, announced last month, is designed to take reconciliation a step further by bringing Biden’s top deputy to French soil for the traditional commemoration of the end of World War I.

It was seen by some on both sides as too soon in the process for Biden himself to travel to France. Harris offers a middle ground because she is not only a vice president but also someone who is viewed as a potential future leader.

“There are a whole bunch of things that Harris could say that need to be said and vice presidents can do this,” said Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of State for Europe under President George W. Bush.

It will be Harris’ third foreign trip and the first one in which she is likely to be able to get closer to regular people through informal cultural events outside of boardrooms and government buildings. Harris spent part of her childhood in French-speaking Quebec and speaks some French.

Her first two trips, to Latin America and Asia, were limited by strict COVID-19 protocols and, in Latin America, a very short and tight schedule. Harris will be joined in Paris by her husband, Doug Emhoff, who did not accompany her on the others.

Vice presidents typically travel abroad widely, giving the administration a high-level diplomatic presence when the president is busy elsewhere. Harris’ travel has been partially limited by the pandemic and she is expected to focus on domestic travel next year to campaign for Democrats in the midterm election.

“Kamala Harris was given sort of the border issue, which is no treat,” said Fried, referring to Harris’ diplomatic role in discouraging Central American migration. “This is a chance for her to raise her profile and let the French get to know her and Europeans get to know her.”


Harris’ trip to Guatemala and Mexico in June was particularly damaging to her domestic reputation. She was pressed during an interview in Guatemala with NBC’s Lester Holt on why she hadn’t at the time visited the U.S.-Mexico border. She appeared defensive, responding, “And I haven’t been to Europe.”

Harris visited the border weeks later.

The trip to Europe, while important to diplomatic relations, does not appear as risky domestically. In addition to meeting with Macron at the Élysée Palace on Wednesday, Harris will join in a public Armistice Day commemoration on Thursday, the 103rd anniversary of the end of World War I that Americans mark as Veterans Day.

She and Emhoff will also visit the American Cemetery, known as Suresnes, on Wednesday night. Former President Trump visited the same cemetery on Veterans Day in 2018, a day after drawing criticism for skipping a visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, about 60 miles northeast of Paris, because it was raining.

Harris will also participate in a pair of international events with more than two dozen world leaders: a global peace forum intended to promote democratic values and a separate conference on the future of Libya as it tries to emerge from a decade of conflict. The Libya conference is co-hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who will step down after 16 years of leadership once a new German government is formed.

The peace forum began in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. Trump, who often spoke against international organizations and disrupted multinational conferences, declined to participate that year. Harris will be the highest-ranking American to speak there.

White House officials say she will focus on “converging global crises, but including, in particular, the challenge of rising inequality and the need for leaders around the world to join together and take bold action.”

The message is in contrast to Trump’s “America First” doctrine that alienated many European allies, part of the Biden administration’s effort to promote the notion that “America is back” on the global stage.

The effort was undermined in some measure during Biden’s recent trip to Rome and Glasgow, Scotland, by the sense that the U.S. Congress remained at odds over his signature climate agenda, even as Biden was urging other countries to act quickly against rising temperatures.

Democrats now appear closer to striking a deal on a $1.85-trillion spending package that includes money for climate and a host of social safety net and other domestic programs. If a deal reaches the Senate, Harris will almost certainly be needed to break a tie, because the body is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. But that is not likely to occur before Harris is scheduled to return on Saturday.

It’s not clear whether Harris’ visit will end the rift with France over the submarine contract.

“We haven’t forgotten what happened,” said a French official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But there is clearly a path forward.”

But it is likely to be the last big gesture on the American side, said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank who focuses on France and resides in The Hague.

“The problem in France is not loss of the contract. It’s loss of face,” he said. “Kamala Harris’ visit will be the capstone of the kind of symbolism that the French are seeking.”