PARIS — It was not until the final hour of a five-day trip to Paris that Vice President Kamala Harris was seen speaking French to an ordinary Parisian.
Her stop at E. Dehillerin Cookware Shop in Paris — where Julia Child was known to buy her pots and pans — followed a solemn gesture laying flowers and meeting with the proprietor of Carillon Café, one of the sites of the 2015 terrorist attacks that killed 130 people.
The efforts at cultural diplomacy, which did not appear on Harris’ official schedule, drew curiosity and excitement on the streets as her motorcade wandered off the wide downtown boulevards and into Paris’ narrow neighborhoods.
These brief moments showed Harris at her most relaxed and engaged. And, as Harris faces another tough stretch in her vice presidency, I couldn’t help wondering why she doesn’t find more of them.
Harris’ trip to France last week illustrates her limits and potential as a politician and diplomat and why she often appears so hemmed in as vice president.
The sojourn to the cookware shop, like almost every other part of any vice president’s life, was at least partly choreographed. But there was an element of spontaneity that often feels missing in Harris’ public moments. It was one of the few times she encountered people outside of a government building or a sterile laboratory.
The media watched as Harris and her husband, first gentleman Doug Emhoff, walked into the store. She bantered about her love of cooking and her Thanksgiving recipes. She made fun of Emhoff for nearly burning down the house when he tried to use the stove.
Then she was seen briefly speaking French to employees as she perused the copper-colored pans on the walls.
(Harris spent her teenage years in Montreal and learned French, but is not comfortable enough with the language to speak it in diplomatic settings.)
After about 20 minutes inside, Harris came out and answered more questions from reporters — about Ukraine and French diplomacy.
Before she walked back into the vice presidential limo, she heard cheers from people eating lunch at nearby cafes. Earlier, one of my colleagues in the press pool saw a father and son run alongside the motorcade to catch a glimpse.
—One mission: Avoiding gaffes
Was this the most important aspect of Harris’ trip? No. But it mattered.
Harris was in France to repair relations with America’s oldest ally after its leaders felt embarrassed and blindsided by the Biden administration after it joined the United Kingdom in a defense pact with Australia. The deal, which was announced in September and took Paris by surprise, left the French out of an agreement to build diesel submarines for Australia. The U.S.-backed pact (known as AUKUS) will allow Australia to deploy sophisticated, nuclear-powered subs.
Harris’ job in France was primarily symbolic — solidifying ties between the old allies and giving French President Emmanuel Macron a political boost by showing up. President Joe Biden had already taken the more substantive step of hashing out the disagreement with Macron and issuing a joint statement aimed at soothing French anger when the two met in the Vatican City late last month. Biden also admitted the U.S. had handled the matter in a “clumsy” way.
In other words, connecting with the French public was part of Harris’ mission.
Harris attracted interest in the French media earlier in the trip, when she met with Macron at the Élysée Palace and observed Armistice Day at the Arc de Triomphe. But she did not generate as much widespread excitement as she might have.
I spoke before and after the trip with Rebecca Amsellem, a women’s rights activist in Paris who runs a media company. She is interested in America’s first female and Black and Indian American vice president, but heard little about the visit from friends. Nor did she see many stories in the media, which she found surprising.
Why didn’t Harris’ staff leave room for encounters with more French people earlier in the trip? And why were there no French media interviews?
The answer: Harris and her advisers were almost single-mindedly focused on avoiding gaffes.
You can blame this on Harris’ first foreign trip, to Guatemala and Mexico, when she was torched for giving an answer that appeared to be flip when she was asked during a network television interview why she had not yet visited the U.S.-Mexico border. Harris’ poll numbers have only declined since then.
This trip seemed designed to avoid such missteps. It would have been risky, in the eyes of Harris’ advisers, to let the press pool watch the vice president go shopping, eating out or even walking around outside of her hotel. Even if it may have drawn interest among the French people, the headlines back home could have been tough: Harris takes a vacation in Paris!
Harris’ advisers were thrilled she made it out of France without any apparent gaffes.
But even that low bar did not protect her from tough stories in the U.S. media.
Not long after she returned home on Saturday, CNN published a lengthy article, detailing “entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus” that has led to tension between Harris’ team and Biden’s advisers.
That story led to another round of tough coverage, though this time it had nothing to do with her conduct on the trip. Nevertheless, the resulting stories overshadowed "le voyage."