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Vice President Harris returns from diplomatic debut in Europe

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Vice President Kamala Harris is back in Washington after spending most of the week in Paris. This trip was not just about U.S. relations with France. It was the vice president's debut in Europe and her first time meeting with some of the world's most important leaders. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid traveled with Harris, and she joins us now. Asma, good to talk to you.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Hey. So unlike President Biden, Harris doesn't have a long track record in foreign affairs. So how did she connect with other leaders?

KHALID: You know, she started her visit by touring this famous scientific lab called the Institut Pasteur. Decades ago, her mother had collaborated with scientists there on cancer research, and she talked about that experience. She talked about her mother at the Paris Peace Forum - it's this large conference started by French President Emmanuel Macron a couple years ago. Harris was the keynote speaker at that event, and she was definitely a curiosity for some of the other world leaders. This trip was an opportunity, I would say, for her to build diplomatic credibility. And in doing that, she took a personal approach to introducing herself to the world, explaining her approach to foreign policy in a major speech there with a story about her mother.


KAMALA HARRIS: When you are a daughter of a scientist, science has a way of shaping how you think. My mother and her work taught me the power of a short and very important question, that question being, why?

KHALID: And the vice president made the point that leaders need to ask why inequality persists and what they ought to do about it.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, so those are a couple of things she did. She went to the research institute. She gave that speech. What else did she do during the week?

KHALID: You know, part of this trip was a continuation of the Biden administration's efforts to repair a rift with France. You probably recall back in September, the U.S. cut a deal over nuclear submarine tech with Australia. That deal meant France lost a contract, and the French were livid over this. All signs do indicate that that rift is more or less over. Macron, the French president, greeted Harris enthusiastically throughout the trip, lots of warm smiles. Their meeting at the Elysee Palace went on longer than expected. He gave her a tour of the place. And she told me that she was particularly moved by seeing this desk that belonged to the renowned French statesman Charles de Gaulle.

HARRIS: It was there that we had a comprehensive conversation about not only science but this new era. I thought of it in the context of what I've read about de Gaulle, and he said, you know, there are three things that you have to keep intact as it relates to Paris. And it's the university. It's the Eiffel Tower and Pasteur Institute.

KHALID: And Harris said she didn't actually even talk about the submarine issue with the president. That, she says, was not the focus of this trip. She highlighted a whole number of other issues, including U.S. support for this French-led initiative on cybersecurity that they did discuss.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, so put this in context for us from Harris's perspective. What does a trip like this mean for her own political prospects?

KHALID: And I think that's a really interesting question. I mean, Harris came into this role as a senator who had not even been in Congress for a full term. She's a former attorney general. Most of her career has focused here in the United States on domestic issues. And so people are watching how she acts as a diplomat on the world stage, particularly if she does, you know, make a run for the top job in the future. This is her third foreign trip, and her first one was overshadowed by gaffes. Her second one was overshadowed by headlines from Afghanistan. I will say, in contrast, this was a quite smooth trip that really allowed the VP to establish some of her own distinct credentials as a world leader. She had face time with about 30 world leaders between the Peace Forum and the summit on Libya.

KURTZLEBEN: So I'm wondering, how was she received while she was there?

KHALID: You know, I will say the French were very curious about her. When she sat down in her seat at the Paris Peace Forum, a gaggle of photographers rushed to the stage and immediately turned their cameras to snap pictures towards her. But this trip was a balancing act. You know, I will say that both she and Biden are down in the polls here at home, and she seemed at times to be playing it safe - cautious, of course, that her most important audience is the people back here in the United States.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you so much for joining us.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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

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