Written by Roger Cohen
Serenaded by a jazz band at the airport, cheered by crowds as he strolled through the French Quarter and even attempting a few dance steps, President Emmanuel Macron plunged into the most French of American cities Friday, the last lap of his state visit to the United States.
After a state dinner and an intense day of diplomacy in Washington, where President Joe Biden and Macron on Thursday found an uncommon unity of purpose on the war in Ukraine and economic challenges stemming from it, the visit to New Orleans appeared to provide a tonic to a leader whose second term that began in May has proved difficult.
“It’s regenerative,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said as she watched Macron greeting people. “Any true politician loves a crowd.”
Of course a crowd can do unexpected things. Macron immediately had the history that drew him to New Orleans thrown in his face as he strolled down St. Peter Street, off Jackson Square.
“You idiot, you sold Louisiana for a mouthful of bread!” Esther Dahan, raised in Casablanca, Morocco, and a fluent French speaker, said as Macron shook her hand.
“I know,” the president said, smiling a little wistfully and shaking his head.
Dahan was referring to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 under which a vast sweep of territory was sold by France to the United States for a little over $27 million. The sale, at about 3 cents an acre, nearly doubled the size of the United States and propelled the young country toward becoming a continental power.
On the elaborate ironwork balconies of the French Quarter, crowds waved at Macron. Some yelled “Allez Les Bleus!” — a reference to the French World Cup soccer team, now qualified for the round of 16. Asked why she thought Macron had come here, Denise Minvielle, descended from French grandparents, said: “Because it’s the best place on Earth!”
Several cities, including Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles, had been considered as possible second destinations during the visit, French officials said. But Macron, with his strong sense of history, favored New Orleans, last visited by a French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in 1976.
With relatively new leaders governing in Germany, Italy and Britain, Macron, 44, is as close to the doyen of European politics as anyone gets, his restlessness and questing mind a stimulus to some, a provocation to others.
One minute he insists that Russia must one day become part of Europe’s “strategic architecture,” the next he dwells on the unacceptable, “imperial” aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which must never be allowed to stand. One minute he declares NATO “brain-dead,” as he did in 2019, the next he hails the inviolable strength of the alliance.
On this visit, he went in just two days from suggesting that Biden’s economic policies could “fragment the West” because subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act constitute unfair competition, to saying differences would be worked out and Franco-American friendship was unbreakable.
He is forever testing new ideas and changing tack. He is not called the “at-the-same-time” president for nothing. His disruption since becoming French leader at the age of 39 has virtually destroyed the center-left and center-right parties that were the foundation of postwar French politics — the Socialists and the Republicans.
But having lost his parliamentary majority in the April elections, and lost his sheen to many French people after bursting on the scene in 2017, he has been casting around for political direction as the Ukraine war and fruitless attempts to end it occupy much of his time.
A warm American reception and unexpected, if highly conditional, backing from Biden for his outreach to Putin, have therefore been particularly welcome. He can now go home to Paris with his diplomacy at least partially vindicated and America’s oldest alliance reaffirmed.
Macron has been relentlessly attacked in France, by the left for favoring the rich and proposing to raise the retirement age progressively to 65 from 62; and by the right for being soft on immigration. In the United States, however, he has gone a long way toward overcoming tensions over the economy and how best to end the war.
Welcoming Macron in midafternoon Thursday to a long-delayed lunch at the State Department, Secretary of State Antony Blinken deadpanned: “Good evening.”
When the laughter subsided, he described the French leader standing next to him as a man of “exceptional vision” and “a galvanizing force for all of us, all of our partners. We could not do without it.”
Just how much of a political animal Macron is was quickly apparent at the lunch hosted by Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris. Dispensing with notes, speaking in English, explaining that his meeting with Biden took three hours because “we fixed everything,” Macron composed an improvised hymn to the “unique bond” between the United States and France.
If some people find the two countries “too proud or too self-confident,” Macron suggested, it was because “we absolutely believe we are charged with protecting certain universal values,” like the liberty that young U.S. soldiers defended as they died on European soil “they had never known before.”
“We will never forget that,” he said.
At the delayed lunch, Macron also thanked the United States for its “unequaled commitment and investment” in supporting the people of Ukraine at the approach of winter. From the leading proponent of European “strategic autonomy,” an idea that has sometimes irked the Biden administration, this appeared to be a particularly generous endorsement of America’s vital role in Europe.
From the war, Macron turned to domestic politics, noting what he called the “resurgence of racism and hate speech” in Western societies. He thanked the United States for turning away from “the demagogues.”
In all his backs-and-forth, Macron has never wavered on one thing: the central importance of the fight against far-right nationalism and the French commitment to the European Union, a bulwark of postwar democracy and freedom on the continent. As the United States lurched to President Donald Trump, and Britain to Brexit, he stood twice between France and a victory of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party.
This was particularly important to Biden, who likes to say that the world is at a tipping point between democracy and rising autocracy.
While in New Orleans, Macron met with Elon Musk. Officials said the meeting, which was not on his official agenda, came at the request of Musk, whom Macron met twice while he was economy minister between 2014 and 2016 but never previously as president.
Macron said in a tweet: “In conformity with our ambition to become carbon neutral and re-industrialize France and Europe, I spoke today with Elon Musk about future green industrial projects, notably the fabrication of electric cars in Europe and batteries.”
On Friday evening, Macron delivered a speech at the New Orleans Museum of Art, in which he said he felt that he was back home. “There is what I would call a familiar strangeness about this city,” he said, adding that “our language and our history are here.”
It seems that this is what Macron sought in coming to New Orleans, one of the most European of American cities. One French student, Thibault Boyer, 20, who is studying engineering at the University of New Orleans, said he was delighted to exchange a few words with the president.
“It’s strange that I had more chance to meet him here than back home in Paris,” he said. “I never expected that.”