Daniel Baud is a veteran of Route 66, who fondly recalls riding the iconic highway spanning a large swath of the United States saddled on his motorcycle. Sporting a snowy goatee and a leather jacket speckled with American memorabilia, he speaks reverently about his vehicle of choice.
“I’ve dreamt of having a Harley-Davidson ever since I was a kid,” Baud said. “For me, it’s about liberty.”
Baud might fit comfortably into an upscale Hells Angels club. But the aging biker is not from Paris, Texas, but rather the French capital.
On a recent morning, he gathered with other Paris-area enthusiasts to plot out their next trip — to Prague. The lure of the open road has been transplanted from America’s heartland to Eastern Europe.
Now, as a transatlantic trade dispute deepens, Harleys, as the motorcycles are called, are a symbol of both what divides and what unites Europe and the United States.
“The French in general seem to have an overwhelming passion and enthusiasm for American culture,” said Richard Clairefond, co-director of the Harley-Davidson Bastille dealership in Paris, where Baud’s club meets most weekends. “And the Harley just kind of rolls up into that experience.”
In the crosshairs
At the moment, however, the motorcycle is better known for being in the crosshairs of a growing divide between Brussels and Washington. After the Trump administration introduced tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports, the European Union riposted, slapping taxes on a long list of U.S. products, including peanut butter, orange juice — and Harley-Davidsons.
WATCH: Caught in Trade Spat, Harley-Davidson Bridges Transatlantic Divides
Now, the Wisconsin-based motorcycle manufacturer is also feeling the heat at home. President Donald Trump vowed Tuesday that it would be “taxed like never before” after the company announced it would move part of its operations overseas — it hasn’t said where — to avoid the European tariff hike.
French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire had a different take.
“Anything that creates jobs in Europe goes in the right direction,” Le Maire told members of the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris in an interview. “We don’t want a trade war, but we will defend ourselves. We aren’t the aggressors, but the aggressed.”
Even as he described “excellent” personal relations with Trump administration counterparts, Le Maire also defended Brussels’ apparent efforts to tax products from mostly Republican states ahead of U.S. congressional elections in November.
“It’s legitimate to use the means we have to make Mr. Trump understand we don’t accept his decision” to tax European metals exports, he said. “And if the sanctions hit Republican states and it makes Republicans understand that their decision is unacceptable, so much the better.”
For the Bastille Harley club, however, the sharpening dispute is being met with a somewhat Gallic shrug.
“It’s politics, that’s all. It’s a mistake on both sides,” said the club’s vice president, Patrick Sarfati, who believes European Harley fans will continue to buy the bike even at a higher price.
Baud is similarly philosophical.
“It’s too bad, but we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “But it won’t stop us from buying our Harleys.”
Dilemma mirrored in Europe
In some ways, Harley-Davidson’s dilemma is matched by the one faced by some European companies. They’ve been threatened with separate U.S. sanctions for doing business with Iran following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement. A growing number are pulling out of Iran, and Economy Minister Le Maire acknowledged that for the moment, European governments had little means of reversing the trend.
“For the moment, our requests remain unanswered,” he said of discussions with Washington.
France, in particular, is no stranger to rocky transatlantic relations — and the euros lost as a result. In 2003, French opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq led to a “freedom fries” retaliation by an irate U.S. Congress, and an American boycott of iconic products like brie and camembert.
Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who was French prime minister at the time, is happy that Europe today is fighting for its principles.
“Maybe it’s Europe’s luck to have Mr. Trump,” he said in an interview. “Because it finds new unity in this adversity, and maybe this will allow it to react strongly.”
Experts say the U.S., for now, is in a position of strength, particularly given its booming economy, although it is confronted by multiple trade disputes. The EU, by contrast, is economically weaker, and splintered by political divisions over issues such as migration and closer economic unity.
Still, the former head of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy, is confident, for the moment, that free trade will win in the long term.
“My own sense is that we’ve reached a stage of globalization that will make de-globalization extremely unlikely” unless protectionist and populist parties strengthen further, Lamy said in recent remarks to Anglophone reporters.
Harley-Davidson’s eventual reprieve from EU sanctions, following its production shift, will help maintain business, said Clairefond of the Bastille motorcycle store — especially when it comes to newer riders with less loyalty and financial means than those in the bikers club.
But he is less upbeat about the broader standoff.
“I think anytime you have a trade war, there’s bound to be winners and losers,” Clairefond said. “But more losers in the end.”