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Biden rolls out the red carpet for French President Macron's state visit

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, is here in Washington for a state visit. Tonight brings celebrity guests, toasts, lobster on the menu and a performance from musician Jon Batiste. Earlier today, though, it was all business as Macron and his American counterpart, Joe Biden, met in the Oval Office and later took questions from reporters.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith was there. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: All right. I'm going to get to the international relations in a second. But first, I want to ask about something you asked President Biden. You had a question for him about his request that Congress pass legislation to avoid a freight rail strike by imposing a contract on rail workers. Tell me more about that.

KEITH: The contract is something that Biden actually helped negotiate earlier this year, and it gives rail workers a big raise, but it doesn't include the paid sick leave that many of the workers and their unions had been pushing for. So I asked Biden whether he thinks that they should get sick leave and why he didn't push harder for it before. That was a question that he made pretty clear he did not like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I love you guys. I negotiated a contract no one else could negotiate.

KEITH: In essence, he said this was the best deal they could get. And now, Congress has to impose the contract because a strike would be devastating to the economy and even could threaten the health and safety of Americans. That legislation has now passed both the House and the Senate as of earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We're going to avoid the rail strike, keep the rails running, keep things moving. And I'm going to go back, and we're going to get paid leave not just for rail workers but for all workers.

KEITH: So what he's saying there, without actually saying it, is that the rail workers are stuck with this contract as it is. And he and Democrats are going to continue pushing for paid sick leave. But that's something that's been on their agenda for a very long time. And now there's a Republican House coming in, making it even less likely than when Democrats controlled all the levers of power in Washington that this could pass.

KELLY: Let me turn you to the U.S.-France relationship.

KEITH: Yeah.

KELLY: One big focus for Macron coming in was the Inflation Reduction Act, which of course contains buy America provisions that European allies, including France, say would be really bad for their business. Was there any resolution to that dispute?

KEITH: Well, this definitely was not resolved in the Oval Office meeting, but both leaders coming out of it were optimistic about it. Just a little bit more background here - President Biden has touted the buy America provisions in the bill in speeches all over the country. But French officials said that these provisions, especially related to electric cars, could put European carmakers at a severe disadvantage. Macron has previously warned Europe may have to take action in response, including subsidies for European companies. Both leaders in their press conference today indicated that they would work toward a solution. But today, President Biden said that none of this was meant to hurt allies like France. He said there were glitches in the bill and that changes are needed to fix those glitches.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BIDEN: So there's tweaks that we can make that can fundamentally make it easier for European countries to participate and/or be on their own. But that is something that is a matter to be worked out.

KEITH: It's not clear exactly how it will be worked out, but both leaders said the conversations and negotiations will continue.

KELLY: Last item, Tam - Ukraine. The war there has of course been a major part of the U.S. relationship with allies like France and Europe all this year. What did Biden and Macron say about where they see this going?

KEITH: Ukrainian civilians are suffering right now from attacks aimed at the power grid and other civilian targets. And I asked Macron whether he talked to Biden about urging Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war. And he was quite firm in his answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: We will never urge the Ukrainians to make a compromise which will not be acceptable for them because they are so brave, and they defend precisely the lives and nation and our principles.

KEITH: A French journalist asked Biden if he would be willing to meet with Putin, something that Macron has done. And Biden said the war needs to end with Russia withdrawing its troops. He chose his words carefully, but he said he would be willing to speak with Putin if Putin is interested in ending the war.

KELLY: NPR White House correspondent, Tamara Keith. Thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.