Speaking at an invitation-only event organised by a network of communications professionals known as the Napoleons, Obama did not mention President Donald Trump, who announced his withdrawal from the landmark global deal in June.
“I grant you that at the moment we have a temporary absence of American leadership on the issue,” Obama said, to laughter in the audience packed with French CEOs and former ministers.
But the US remains on track to meet its targets, he said, thanks to the action of some states, cities and because it made “business sense”.
Earlier in the day, Obama had lunch with President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace – although the French presidency told Reuters that was in a “private capacity” and did not publicise the event with the usual tweet or official photo.
Macron, who received Obama’s public support during his campaign for the presidency, slammed Trump’s decision to ditch the climate accord last June, but has since tried to maintain cordial relations with the billionaire.
The 39-year-old leader made Trump the guest of honour of Bastille Day celebrations in Paris in July and has said he still hoped to change the American president’s mind on the issue.
Obama also met former French president Francois Hollande, who hosted the UN’s climate conference two years ago, and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo.
In comments likely to raise eyebrows in Brussels, Obama said that although Europeans should not take for granted what the European project has accomplished since the end of World War Two, decision-making in the EU could be improved.
“I think for example that the European Union needs to recognise that micro-managing every single aspect of life within Europe gets people frustrated,” he said.
“So there are ways of streamlining and improving the functioning of the European Union, but the European project itself, the Union itself is something that is worth preserving,” he added.