Kamala Harris in Paris: The Vice President gets a chance to burnish her image on the world stage

Vice President Kamala Harris with French President Emanuel Macron. Photo: Twitter account of VP.

PARIS – Vice President Kamala Harris’s first stop on her third international trip was the Institut Pasteur, where she walked the same halls that her mother strode through decades ago as she tried to find a cure for breast cancer. Harris has repeatedly said her mother’s example, both as a civil rights stalwart and as a scientist, inspired her own path into politics.

Harris’s time here will quickly shift from personal to policy-focused, as she wades into a number of issues of international import: Inequity that’s been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, lending American support to an unstable situation in Libya and doing her part to mend America’s frayed relationship with its oldest ally.

Vice President Kamala Harris during her trip to france in a bilateral meeting with French President Emanuel Macron. Photo: Twitter @VP

The five-day trip to France offers Harris an opportunity to boost her global bona fides at a time when her party’s political fortunes appear shaky at home. Early November has been a roller coaster for Democrats, marked by electoral losses in Virginia and legislative success on President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.

Harris is seen as a likely successor to Biden as the leader of the party and future presidential contender, though she’s been tasked with overseeing a series of politically difficult initiatives in her current role. The visit to a long-standing ally offers her a chance for a positive narrative after uneven international trips that at times have been marked by self-inflicted setbacks.

Senior administration officials billed Harris’s Paris trip as an attempt to bolster America’s global leadership and speak out on international issues that mirror problems at home. Harris will also have a bilateral meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday and, a day later, will deliver the opening address at the Paris Peace Summit.

In a statement just before the trip, Harris said its aim was “to build on our Administration’s progress strengthening our alliances and partnerships in Europe and around the world” and that she and Macron will discuss “urgent challenges of our time – including the climate crisis, the global health crisis, and regional security concerns.”

France has been an ally of the United States since before its founding, but during the Biden administration, relations hit an all-time low. In September Australia canceled a $39 billion deal with the French for diesel-powered submarine technology after signing an agreement for nuclear-powered subs with the United States and Britain. Administration officials have said the effort was an attempt to shore up Australia – an Indo-Pacific ally – during what Biden has framed as an increasingly contentious competition with China.

But the French, who found out their contract was canceled only hours before it went public, were livid about being kept in the dark. Biden’s actions, the French complained, undercut his message that he would stabilize and strengthen the trans-Atlantic alliance, and they likened the submarine mishap to President Donald Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign policy.

Attempting to smooth things over last week, Biden met with Macron during the Group of 20 summit in Rome, acknowledging that the way his administration handled the submarine deal was “clumsy, it was not done with a lot of grace.”

Last week, officials downplayed that Harris’s meeting with Macron was an attempt to further assuage the French. Harris, one said, was simply accepting a long-standing invitation.

On Friday, she will take part in the Paris summit on Libya. The northern African nation has endured a decade of strife after a NATO-backed uprising ended the reign of dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.

In the power vacuum that followed Gaddafi’s death, the oil-rich country has pinballed between rival governments – one is based in the eastern part of the country, the other is in Tripoli – that are backed by different foreign powers and militias.

Elections are scheduled for Christmas Eve, and an interim government has been installed in an effort to keep the peace, but worries abound and the world’s leaders hope international pressure and assistance will help stabilize the country long enough for a democratically elected government to take over.

Biden has said the goal of his administration will be to restore America’s standing abroad. Harris’s trips – to Latin America, to Asia two months ago, and now to France, all serve as part of an effort to paint America as the leader of the free world – and to argue that the world should resist the lure of authoritarianism and instead choose democracies.

Still, the arguments haven’t always been glowing, both because of domestic travails in Biden’s first year in office and during Harris’s foreign trips so far.

Her first international trip – to Guatemala and Mexico as part of an effort to address the root causes of migration – was marked by an exchange with NBC News’s Lester Holt where she awkwardly said that she would go to the U.S.’s southern border with Mexico – something Republicans and other critics had been calling for her to do for some time.

In August, Harris traveled to Singapore and South Vietnam, in what was at first billed as an uncontroversial trip to benign allies.

But the trip occurred at the same time America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan began to sour. A terrorist attack killed dozens of civilians and 13 American service members, and one of the enduring images was desperate Afghans trying to flee the country, falling from departing planes.

And instead of questions about U.S.-Asia relations, Harris faced questions about whether America was fundamentally good at keeping its commitments or what the Taliban’s resurgence would mean for Afghan women and girls who finally had a foothold to equality.

“There’s no question that what many of us have seen on television, as the president has said – I mean, the president has, I think, shown great emotion in expressing sadness about some of the images we have seen,” she told reporters. “But we cannot be in any way – distracted in any way from what must be our primary mission right now, which is evacuating people from that region who deserve to be evacuated.”

 

 

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