PARIS — Vice President Kamala Harris announced on Wednesday that the United States had joined a French-led international initiative to protect civilians against cyberattacks and discourage digital meddling in elections, three years after the Trump administration declined to sign onto the effort.
The agreement, called the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, is a nonbinding declaration and is largely symbolic. But so is Ms. Harris’s presence in Paris.
In the weeks since a pact between the United States, Australia and Britain brusquely canceled out a lucrative and strategically important submarine contract that the French had with the Australians, the Biden administration has thrown an entire olive tree at the feet of Emmanuel Macron, the French president. Tensions have been so high in recent weeks that, within seconds of meeting Mr. Macron for the first time at the Élysée Palace on Wednesday, Ms. Harris took a question from a reporter about whether or not she needed to make amends.
“I’m very happy to be in Paris,” the vice president replied, turning away from the news media and ducking into the palace a millisecond ahead of her host.
The vice president’s five-day trip comes after President Biden conceded to Mr. Macron in a meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Rome in late October that the submarine deal had been “clumsy” and “was not done with a lot of grace.” That acknowledgment came weeks after Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken — a diplomat with close ties to the country and whose mother lives in Paris — became the first high-profile official to visit a post-rift France: “It’s a pleasure to be here,” Mr. Blinken said during that trip.
So far, Ms. Harris has shown little interest in addressing the spat.(Her staff maintains that informal plans for her to go to Europe were in motion well before relations became strained, but did not offer a specific timeline.) Even if her assignment in Paris appeared to lack concrete objectives, it seemed to include stressing that the U.S.-France relationship was now about looking forward, not back.
Mr. Macron, who faces re-election next year and is facing a likely challenge from a far-right firebrand, indicated as much during brief remarks at the Élysée Palace.
“I have to say we had a very fruitful meeting in Roma a few days ago with President Biden, and it paved the way for the coming weeks, months and I have to say years,” Mr. Macron said as he sat across from Ms. Harris. “We were just discussing about the fact that we do share the view that we are at the beginning of a new era, and our cooperation is absolutely critical for this one.”
In her reply, Ms. Harris agreed: “I do believe, and I think we share this belief, that we are at the beginning of a new era, which presents us with many challenges, but also many opportunities.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration said in a statement that Ms. Harris and Mr. Macron had also agreed to engage in “expanded cooperation on space,” and said that the United States would join the Space Climate Observatory, an informal group of international organizations, in an effort to better safeguard against climate change. Ms. Harris, the chair of the National Space Council, leads the Biden administration’s climate-related efforts in space, according to the White House.
Ms. Harris’s agenda in Paris did not address the top-line items Mr. Macron had demanded from the Americans ahead of Mr. Biden’s visit to Italy, which had included deeper commitments from the U.S. on defense and counterterrorism measures. After the meeting with Mr. Biden in Rome, the United States committed to assisting the French counterterrorism fight in the area south of the Sahara known as the Sahel, and said it would increase support for deployments across the Indo-Pacific.
Experts say the gauziness of Ms. Harris’s trip is a sign that Mr. Macron has already gotten much of what he has demanded, both in substance and diplomatic style.
“The French are making two arguments” after the submarine rift, Jeremy Shapiro, a research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. “One is they’re saying, ‘You shouldn’t have done this,’ and the other is, ‘You did it badly and in a way that doesn’t reflect our status as an ally.’ The U.S. is accepting the second argument, they’re not accepting the first one.”
Since arriving in France, Ms. Harris has tried to focus on the future of two countries that are facing the same threats, chief among them climate change and a global pandemic. She has also subtly telegraphed that her presence in Paris could not be more different than the last state-level visit, a blustery appearance made by President Donald J. Trump in 2018.
Earlier on Wednesday, she visited the Suresnes American Cemetery, placing her palm softly on the headstones of American service members who died during the First World War: “I’m glad we could be here to say hello,” Ms. Harris said at one point to her tour guide. “Thank you for knowing all of these stories and telling them.”
In 2018, Mr. Trump skipped a visit to a veteran’s cemetery further outside of Paris. In 2020, Mr. Trump denied a report in The Atlantic that he had mocked that cemetery as “filled with losers.”
On Thursday, Ms. Harris will attend an Armistice Day ceremony with Mr. Macron and deliver remarks at the Paris Peace Forum as the highest-ranking American official to attend. Mr. Trump skipped the inaugural event. On Friday, she will attend an international conference on Libya with several heads of state, including Mr. Macron and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.
After two prior trips abroad — the first, to Guatemala and Mexico, overshadowed by a blundered answer to a question she fielded about the U.S.-Mexico border, and the next, to Vietnam and Singapore, overshadowed by Afghanistan — Ms. Harris’s visit to France has so far been defined by its personal flourishes.
During a visit on Tuesday to the Pasteur Institute, a research facility in Paris where her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, once worked, Ms. Harris said that her visit was meant to symbolize “a sign of the current state of the relationship and our dedication to the future.” She visited with two researchers, one French, and one American, who are trying to determine why some people fall deathly ill from the coronavirus while others experience no symptoms.
She quizzed the pair on emerging variants before ruminating in front of the cameras for several minutes about her love for the scientific process — at least compared to the political deal making process she has observed at home.
“They start out with a hypothesis,” Ms. Harris said. “And then they test it out — knowing invariably if you’re trying something for the first time, there will be glitches, there will be mistakes.
“With us in government, we campaign with “The Plan” — uppercase “T,” uppercase “P” — “The Plan,” she continued. “And then the environment is such that we’re expected to defend “The Plan,” even when the first time we roll it out, there may be some glitches and it’s time to re-evaluate and then do it again.”
She denied that she was trying to make a point about legislative gridlock over the president’s domestic agenda back in Washington: “I’ve been saying this for years.”