Trump is back in Europe: Why the continent suddenly appeals

Accepting a flattering invitation from French President Emmanuel Macron offered more than just a respite from Washington. It was a chance to nurture a relationship that both leaders are coming to value, built on 'common issues of deep importance.'

Yves Herman/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron listens to President Trump in the courtyard of Les Invalides after a welcoming ceremony in Paris on Thursday, July 13, 2017. The two toured the golden-domed building housing some of France's greatest war heroes, including Napoleon Bonaparte and the Supreme Allied Commander in World War I.

Who would have imagined that Donald Trump would take such a liking to Europe – and especially to France – so quickly in his presidency?

But here we are, not yet a half-year into President Trump’s tenure, and the leader who as a candidate belittled the Europeans, thrilled at the prospect of a crumbling European Union, and derided European cities as “dangerous” (Paris) and a “hell hole” (Brussels) is in Europe for the third time in two months.

And this time in Paris, no less.

Ostensibly, Mr. Trump and first lady Melania Trump are on a quick, barely 48-hour jaunt to the City of Lights because France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, invited them to take part in the July 14 Bastille Day festivities – the pièce de résistance of which is a grand military parade down the Champs-Élysées.

And while that part is true, administration and French officials and analysts of transatlantic relations suggest there is much more to Trump’s newfound affinity for Europe than a soft spot for parades.

The opportunity to look presidential and to burnish American leadership, the relief of getting out of the Washington hothouse, the realization that America and Europe value their enduring ties despite differences – all help to explain Trump’s readiness to return to a place that by many accounts he initially dreaded visiting.

Perhaps even flattery played a role in swaying Trump in his estimation of Europe.

“Our president wanted to really make the point that he values the relationship he is already developing with President Trump, he wanted to demonstrate the importance of strong relations between France and the United States on so many issues that are important to both of us, so he invited him to be his guest at this very French celebration,” says a senior French official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not so often that an American president has been invited to participate in our national day.”

Indeed, the last US president to attend the Bastille Day military parade was George H.W. Bush in 1989. But that was in conjunction with a G7 summit (and the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution) and included other Western leaders, from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to pre-unification West Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

This time, Trump is the guest of honor par excellence.

Macron's understanding of Trump

Mr. Macron’s invitation reflects an astute sizing up of an American president like no other, a showman with a taste for the grandiose, say specialists in the often thorny yet enduring Franco-American relationship.

The French leader will take Trump on a tour of Napoleon’s tomb, and he and his wife will accompany the Trumps to a dinner at the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower – with spectacular views of a gorgeous (and not so dangerous) Paris.

But the highlight will be the military parade, with the participation of American forces alongside French gunners, sailors, and air force pilots, marking the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I. Macron’s message to Trump, aides say, is the value of binding ties between two great nations.

“Just as in our history, we have common issues of deep importance that we know require France and the US to work together, like fighting terrorism and finding a solution in Syria,” the French official says. “We French need the Americans with us in the Sahel,” the region in north-central Africa where France has taken the lead in defeating Islamist terrorists.

Macron realizes that a key to keeping France punching above its weight on the global stage is to cultivate relations with the leaders of world powers, as difficult as those relations might be, some experts note. Indeed, just over a month ago the young French leader invited Vladimir Putin to the sumptuous Versailles palace, where he had chefs prepare for the Russian president a meal based on the menu that Louis XIV offered to Peter the Great 300 years earlier.

Trump, too, has come to value France’s relations with the US, particularly its strong military posture and robust participation in counterterrorism efforts such as the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, aides say.

“France is far and away one of the largest and strongest military members of the [NATO] alliance” and “carries a heavy load in the counterterrorism fight,” a senior administration official said this week. Trump “looks forward to reaffirming America’s strong ties of friendship with France … and to commemorating the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I,” the White House said.

Changed perspective on Europe

But other reasons also played a role in the president’s “yes” to Macron’s invitation to a quick Paris escape, experts say.

For Trump, it may have started with just wanting to get out of the house – and away from the maelstrom of the Russia hacking scandal. White House reports depict a president increasingly frustrated with the drip-drip of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian ties.

And then the optics can hardly be beat. The trip offers Trump an opportunity to look presidential and to stand on the world stage as commander-in-chief. Indeed, shortly after arriving in Paris Thursday, Trump led a ceremony recognizing three American veterans of the 1944 D-Day invasion of German-occupied France.

But Trump’s perspective on Europe also seems to have changed to some degree, especially after his two recent visits – to a NATO leaders meeting in Brussels and a G20 summit in Hamburg. Analysts may have largely deemed those trips difficult, but the White House concluded they were successes both for the president personally and in terms of displaying a new version – stronger and tougher – of American global leadership.

And as long as he avoids declarations like “France is a disaster!” – as he said at a campaign rally last September – there’s no reason Paris shouldn’t join the list of reasons Trump loves Europe.

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