Trump-Macron: True partners, or just friends?

Amid the fanfare of a state visit, what President Macron may be about to learn is whether his winning shows of strength translate into concrete results on matters of concern to France, especially when dealing with the 'America First' president.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron and President Trump shared a laugh during their meeting in the Oval Office following the official White House arrival ceremony in Washington on April 24.

Shortly before French President Emmanuel Macron was to meet President Trump for the first time at a NATO summit last spring, the young and hyper-ambitious French leader received an urgent memo from France’s ambassador in Washington.

Beware the American leader’s peculiar but very intentional handshake, the ambassador, Gérard Araud, advised Mr. Macron. Best to be prepared for it.

What followed, Macron himself has since confirmed, was a crash course featuring videos of the Trump grab-and-jerk handshake, followed by sessions where France’s youngest leader since Napoleon practiced power handshakes of his own.

The result was not just the handshake seen ‘round the world, but the budding of an unlikely relationship that is on full display in Washington this week: Tuesday night the “America First” president – who has shown little respect or use for world leaders, including many US allies – lavishes the first state dinner of his presidency on a French leader who freely associates himself with his country’s long-gone absolute monarchs.

From an intimate dinner for the two first couples Monday at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate to Macron’s address Wednesday to a joint session of Congress – plus a dialogue with students at George Washington University – Americans are getting a glimpse of the one world leader with whom Trump appears to have clicked.

The question that remains to be answered is whether all the fuss and fanfare that have gone into cementing an unusual transatlantic bond will translate into a deeper relationship that enhances cooperation on common interests. They range from counterterrorism and European security to countering Iran and upholding international norms, such as the ban on the use of chemical weapons.

If it does, it will have all started with that first handshake – when a physically diminutive Macron demonstrated strength and self-respect to an unorthodox American president known for disdaining those who in his eyes demonstrate weakness.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, first lady Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron hold hands on the White House balcony during a state arrival ceremony at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2018.

“Trump hates weak people and those with no personality, and I think Macron distinguished himself from the outset with that handshake,” says Jeff Lightfoot, a nonresident senior fellow specializing in US-Europe relations and North Atlantic security at Washington’s Atlantic Council.

Indeed it is Macron who has “broken the code of this president” by managing to simultaneously demonstrate personal strength and respect for Trump, says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

“Trump does respond well to strength, but it wasn’t just the handshake” that forged this bond and explains why Macron, unlike some other leaders, has managed to steer clear of Trump’s Twitter tirades, she says. “It stems very much from President Trump’s [subsequent] trip to Paris, when President Macron really went out of his way to demonstrate respect for Trump and for France’s relations with the United States.”

As others note, it was on the Paris trip weeks after the handshake that Macron made Trump his guest of honor to the Bastille Day military parade, thus exposing him to the martial force that has made France perhaps America’s most reliable security partner.

“Macron has proven to be very adept at the symbolism and stagecraft of international politics,” says Jeff Rathke, a former US foreign service officer now specializing in US-Europe relations at CSIS. “He has a sense that resonates with President Trump.”

The Bastille Day parade, he adds, really drove home “the strength France brings to the [Franco-American] relationship.”

Contrast with Merkel

Trump’s enchantment with Macron and the US-France relationship is on display this week not only in the three-day state visit, but in how it contrasts so starkly with the one-day working visit German Chancellor Angela Merkel will make to the White House Friday.

The German leader may bring with her the same topics her French counterpart will seek to address – primarily the Iran nuclear deal and transatlantic trade – but the brief official visit seems to underscore how Trump’s relations with Germany have never taken off.

But if Macron has spent such time and effort cementing what he calls a “very close” relationship with Trump, it is not in the least out of a sycophantic desire to be the American president’s best buddy, experts say. Rather, it reflects a clear-eyed mission to pursue the global role France envisions for itself and to further French interests through close ties to the leader who, as Ambassador Araud noted at an Atlantic Council event earlier this month, is “after all, the most powerful man in the world.”

Macron and Trump may disagree on many key issues, from climate change and the Paris climate accord to the usefulness of the Iran nuclear deal. But as numerous diplomatic analysts have pointed out, the French leader is out to demonstrate to Trump that the two nations’ enduring common interests outweigh even big current disputes.

“Macron plays on France’s soft power when he invites Trump to the Champs-Élysées” to review the Bastille Day military parade “in a demonstration of pragmatic cooperation overcoming strategic disagreements,” says Célia Belin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe.

Writing recently in the Washington-based National Interest, the former French Foreign Ministry US analyst adds that “Macron’s flawless English and flair for theatrical statecraft puts France at the center of international relationships in ways that considerably expand the country’s global influence.”

Yet what Macron may be about to learn is whether or not punching above one’s own weight translates into concrete results, especially when dealing with the “America First” Trump, who seized the opportunity at their meeting today to attack the Iran nuclear deal as “insane.”

French expectations

Macron comes to the White House with the Iran deal at the top of his agenda. Experts say the French leader would like nothing better than to convince Trump to stick with the international accord past the May 12 deadline Trump faces for deciding whether the US remains in or exits the deal.

But they add that Macron and his entourage have been careful to avoid sounding like they are on a rescue mission for the Iran deal – or that the French leader has a list of must-gets in his travel bag.

“The French are playing down the expectations, they don’t want to be seen as coming home empty-handed,” says the Atlantic Council’s Mr. Lightfoot. “The truth is that they don’t know what this president is going to decide [on Iran] any more than anyone else does.”

That explains why Macron is likely, especially publicly, to put the emphasis on the “enduring common interests and specific goals” the two nations have, says Mr. Rathke.

“For Macron it will be important to underscore where the US and France cooperate militarily – in the Sahel [region of Africa], on ISIS in Syria, as we’ve seen recently on enforcing the norms against the use of chemical weapons with the airstrikes in Syria – and how that cooperation furthers our common interests,” he says. “Those security interests are enduring,” he adds, “and they will endure even if he doesn’t get Trump to adjust his policies” on issues like Iran.

Another area Macron will address is trade, and in particular Western trade with China. But that conversation will be marked by Trump administration threats to impose tariffs on European steel and automobiles. “Basically Macron’s message to Trump will be, ‘We share concerns on China’s trade and industrial development practices, but we can’t work together if you are putting tariffs on us,’ ” Lightfoot says.

Yet while Macron may not need to score a win on the Iran deal to maintain relations with Trump, at some point he will need to get something concrete to show for his efforts to woo the US president, others say.

“At the end of the day, leaders need to deliver for their national interests,” says Ms. Conley of CSIS. “And if there’s nothing to show for the effort put into a relationship, it doesn’t really matter at that point if one leader can say, ‘Yes we haven’t got much, but I am treated differently in the Twitter account.’ ”

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