France’s Emmanuel Macron met on Monday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a staunch defender of President Donald Trump, in a potentially uncomfortable encounter only nine days after having congratulated President-elect Joe Biden on his election win.
Neither side said much in advance about Pompeo's low-profile visit to Paris, the starting point of a seven-country tour of Europe and the Middle East.
The purposes of Pompeo’s three-day visit to Paris in the midst of the pandemic appeared unclear.
No press conference was scheduled, seemingly ruling out the likelihood of journalists getting to ask Pompeo or Macron about their conflicting visions of the US election outcome.
America’s top diplomat has been criticised for backing the president as he digs in over his unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
“There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” a defiant Pompeo told reporters moments after announcing his trip last week.
World leaders, however, have shown no doubt about whom they see as the victor, with Macron one of the first to congratulate Biden and speak with him by telephone.
Pompeo has been critical of such overtures to Biden, telling Fox News that such calls to Biden were not objectionable if it was “just saying ‘hi’.”
“But make no mistake about it, we have one president, one secretary of state, one national security team at a time,” he said.
A senior State Department official, asked whether Pompeo would insist to allies that Trump will remain in power, said that the former CIA director has a “broad strategy” in pursuit of US interests and that “he remains the secretary of state”.
In contrast to some other EU leaders, Macron sought from the outset to win over Trump, making him the guest of honour at Bastille Day celebrations in Paris in 2017 – a trip that included a dinner with their spouses on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower.
But analysts say that the French leader has little to show for his efforts, with Trump pulling the US out of the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord and the two leaders also locking horns on Iran, trade and taxing digital giants.
“The strong relationship between our countries cannot be overestimated, and I’m looking forward to my discussions here in Paris,” Pompeo tweeted soon after his arrival on Saturday.
But there was ample scope for friction.
Le Drian said Friday that he would raise the concerns of France – which has been hit by a number of jihadist attacks – over Trump’s plans to speed up the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We don’t think that should happen,” Le Drian said in a television interview.
EU leaders are also still trying to save a hard-won international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Trump ripped up early in his term.
A senior Trump administration official told the press that Washington’s policy of “maximum pressure” on historic foe Iran was “not going to stop in the coming months".
Pompeo, whose visit had the hallmarks of a farewell tour that dare not speak its name, had no official engagements in Paris over the weekend, which he spent with his wife Susan.
Before Monday’s meetings with Macron and his foreign minister, Pompeo attended a memorial to victims of terrorism at a Paris landmark, the Hotel des Invalides, where he laid a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers.
From Paris he heads to Istanbul, where his planned trip has already caused friction.
Pompeo’s only announced meeting is with Bartholomew I of Constantinople – the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox world – to discuss religious freedom, a key topic for the evangelical Christian Pompeo.
In Jerusalem, Pompeo will see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is a close partner of Trump but who has also congratulated Biden.
According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz and news site Axios, Pompeo will become the first secretary of state to visit one of Israel’s settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, which are considered illegal by virtually all other countries, and also tour the Golan Heights, whose annexation by Israel was recognised by Trump.
Pompeo will also visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Georgia.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)