President Emmanuel Macron was greeted by President Joe Biden and a military honor guard at the White House on Thursday for a state visit that the French leader has seized as an opportunity to air deep grievances over US-EU trade.
The red carpet and a row of flag-bearing sailors, airmen, soldiers and marines emphasized the effort made by the administration to welcome Macron in the first formal state visit of Biden's presidency.
After an initial ceremony, the two presidents were to meet in the Oval Office for discussions on the Western alliance confronting Russia over Ukraine, handling the rise of China and the contentious trade question.
Biden and Macron were then to give a joint press conference before winding up the day with a lavish dinner featuring French favorites of wine and cheese -- but in both cases American-made.
However, Macron has made clear, in unusually blunt language, that he is not just in Washington for the niceties.
On his first day of the visit Wednesday, when he toured NASA headquarters, Arlington National Cemetery and met US lawmakers, the French leader surprised his hosts with a bitter attack on Biden's signature policy to boost the US green economy, saying it would "kill" European jobs. On Thursday, right before arriving at the White House, he repeated his criticism in an ABC television interview where he said Biden's policy would remove "a level playing field."
The legislation, called the Inflation Reduction Act or IRA, is set to pour billions of dollars into environmentally friendly industries, with strong backing for US-based manufacturers. The White House touts the IRA as a groundbreaking effort to reignite US manufacturing and promote renewable technologies.
However, European Union governments are crying foul, threatening to launch a trade war by subsidizing their own green economy sector.
"The consequence of the IRA is that you will perhaps fix your issue but you will increase my problem. I'm sorry to be so straightforward," Macron said on Wednesday, warning Biden could "split the West."
The White House responded by insisting that European companies have nothing to fear from the IRA.
US advances in the clean energy economy will help Europeans too, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. The IRA "presents significant opportunities for European firms as well as benefits to EU energy security. This is not a zero-sum game."
- Menu and music -
Aside from the trade dispute fireworks, most of the visit revolves around kindling the long, if often slightly prickly US-French diplomatic friendship.
On Wednesday evening, Macron and his wife Brigitte joined Biden and First Lady Jill Biden at an upscale Washington Italian restaurant.
The state dinner at the White House will return grand-scale entertainment to Washington in a way not seen since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the capital's typically busy schmoozing scene.
Grammy-award-winning American musician Jon Batiste will perform at the banquet, which the White House said will kick off with butter-poached Maine lobster, paired with caviar, delicata squash raviolo and tarragon sauce.
The main course features beef and triple-cooked butter potatoes, before leading to the cheese course of award-winning US brands, and finally orange chiffon cake, roasted pears with citrus sauce and creme fraiche ice cream.
Washing all that down will be three different wines -- all from US vineyards.
- China high on agenda -
Trade tensions, however, are only part of the uncomfortable flip side to the red carpet occasion.
Another gripe in Europe is the high cost of US liquid natural gas exports -- which have surged to help compensate for canceled Russian deliveries.
There is also divergence on how to deal with the rise of superpower China. The question -- with Washington pursuing a more hawkish tone and EU powers trying to find a middle ground -- is unlikely to see much progress.
"Europe has since 2018 its own, unique strategy for relations with China," tweeted French embassy spokesman Pascal Confavreux in Washington.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said China will be "very high on the agenda" this week but stressed that both countries share a broad approach.
"We believe that not only France, but every other member of the G7 -- frankly, our NATO allies too -- see the threats and challenges posed by China in the same way."