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Why Vice President Harris is in France this week

Vice President Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff tour the Institut Pasteur in Paris on Nov. 9.
Sarahbeth Maney
Vice President Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff tour the Institut Pasteur in Paris on Nov. 9.

Updated November 9, 2021 at 12:27 PM ET

Vice President Kamala Harris is in Paris this week, her third international trip this year. But in contrast to her first two, where she met with individual heads of state and focused on bilateral relationships, this is the first where Harris is the top White House official at a large gathering of world leaders.

Harris will have face time with some two dozen world leaders, including some of the biggest leaders in Europe, like France's Emmanuel Macron, Germany's Angela Merkel and Italy's Mario Draghi. It's a high-profile venue for someone who has spent most of her career on domestic issues and a chance for her to build up a foreign policy track record — an important element if Harris chooses to run for president in the future.

"Apprenticeship is a good word for it," said Colin Dueck, a former adviser to multiple Republican presidential candidates, who now teaches at George Mason University.

"She's not terribly experienced on foreign policy. So she's got to get that experience: meet foreign leaders, travel, develop her own views," Dueck said.

Harris supporters say it's not fair to compare her to the president with his decades on the global stage. They say she has a global orientation, visiting India as a child and going to high school in multicultural Montreal. And they say her instincts are solid.

"She does have experience with regard to foreign policy and national security issues, and a lot of that experience that was gained in the Senate happened behind closed doors," said Halie Soifer, who was a national security adviser to Harris in Congress, when Harris was on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Part of the visit is ceremonial

Harris started her trip on Tuesday with a tour of the Institut Pasteur. Her mother, a breast cancer researcher, worked with scientists from the world-renowned center in the 1980s. "The breakthroughs that she was responsible for in the 80s was the basis for a lot of great work," she said. "We've come so far with breast cancer research" but have much more to go, Harris said.

She expressed her admiration to the scientists she met with on the tour for "the nature of who you are and the gift you bring."

Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, will also visit the Suresnes American Cemetery on the eve of Veterans Day in the United States, and attend Armistice Day ceremonies in Paris.

Vice presidents traditionally use these kinds of trips to firm up diplomatic relationships

Given that Harris' political focus has been on domestic priorities, the Paris trip gives her the chance to establish her credentials as a diplomat, said Joel Goldstein, a scholar of the vice presidency at St. Louis University, who is considered one of the foremost experts on the office.

"One of the things that has made foreign travel appealing to vice presidents going back to Richard Nixon is that it presents them as a leader on the world stage. It elevates them," Goldstein said.

"Those sorts of meetings, while they're are often dismissed as being ceremonial, they're times where vice presidents ... can actually do a lot of business because they can see a lot of people. And you never know what relationship you may develop," he said.

Vice President Harris will travel overseas next week to meet with world leaders at two conferences in Paris.
Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Vice President Harris is in Paris to meet with world leaders at two conferences.

Harris will give a speech focused on inequality

The trip will also be an opportunity for the Biden administration to reiterate two key foreign policy goals: repairing alliances and bringing a multilateral approach back to combat common challenges.

Harris will deliver an address to the Paris Peace Forum, a conference that focuses on global governance issues, on Nov. 11. In a statement, Harris said she plans to speak about "the rising inequality that has been exacerbated by the pandemic."

The next day, she will participate in an international conference aimed at showing support for upcoming national elections in Libya, a country that has struggled with civil war and instability for the last decade.

Vice President Harris speaks with reporters after landing in Paris on Nov. 9.
Sarahbeth Maney / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Vice President Harris speaks with reporters after landing in Paris on Nov. 9.

She is also part of the U.S. charm offensive after the submarine flap

While in Paris, Harris will also hold a bilateral meeting with Macron, where she said she will discuss climate, global health issues, and regional security concerns. "We will also discuss new opportunities for collaboration in the area of space," Harris said.

The meeting is part of a full-court effort to repair the United States' relationship with France, which hit a rocky patch after a U.S. deal on nuclear-powered submarines with Australia shut France out of a contract, angering France to the point that it took the highly unusual step of recalling its ambassador to the United States.

"The vice president is basically a part of this charm operation that the United States implemented towards France in the past month and a half," said Célia Belin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a former official in the French foreign ministry.

Biden met with Macron last week in Rome to try to alleviate any remaining ill feelings. Biden acknowledged the U.S. announcement of the deal had been "clumsy."

"The vice president's visit is sort of the last straw of this procession of high-level American officials who who are coming, passing by Paris or meeting with the French in order to remind everybody that they value the French-American relationship, that they value the bilateral relationship in the context of Europe," Belin said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.