After laying out a dazzling Bastille Day parade and an Eiffel Tower dinner complete with stunning Paris vistas, French President Emmanuel Macron can expect return treatment when he heads to Washington Monday, for the first official state visit of Donald Trump’s presidency.
But along with dining at the historic landmark of Mount Vernon and a chance to address Congress, lie talks on serious transatlantic differences. Macron’s three-day visit to the U.S. will test whether he can translate his reputation as Trump’s “go-to” European leader into deliverables for France and for Europe.
“If he gives the impression that he is too much aligned with Washington and Trump in particular, this can backfire domestically in France,” says Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Paris office head of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Especially if French and European interests are at risk by a decision President Trump could take.”
Trade, Iran and Syria count among key issues of discussion where the two leaders do not see eye-to-eye. The talks will also center around the broader French-U.S. security cooperation that forms the bedrock of today’s relationship.
More broadly, Macron’s visit will underscore two clashing world visions, analysts say.
“On the one side, there is a strategy of withdrawal, on the other a strategy of opening,” says Philippe Moreau Defarges, a former French diplomat and international specialist, comparing Trump to Macron. “But the disagreements are quite clear, and (this clarity) can help them settle their differences.”
Less than a year ago, few would have thought France’s youngest president and America’s oldest one could have built such a close rapport. From work habits to extracurricular passions — art versus golf — 40-year-old Macron and 71-year-old Trump appear diametrically opposed. And indeed, their first encounter, sealed in snapshots of Macron bypassing Trump to greet German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a NATO meeting last May, then the famous arm-wrestling handshake, did not appear promising.
Yet both men are also political outsiders, whose ascent to power toppled the status quo. And Trump’s trip to Paris last July helped to mark a U-turn in their relations.
“They talk to each other frequently. It’s obvious that Macron tries to keep the United States within the circle of countries and leaders — and that means speaking to Donald Trump respectfully, frequently and strongly,” says French historian and U.S. expert Nicole Bacharan.
“And on Donald Trump’s side, he seems to enjoy this dominant alpha male relationship. (Macron’s) youth and popularity is something he likes to be close to.”
The military linchpin
Long gone are the Freedom Fries’ days that marked a nadir in bilateral ties, after former French leader Jacques Chirac refused to join the 2003 U.S.-led coalition to topple former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The “special” transatlantic relationship then was forged between U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Then came U.S. President Barack Obama, who made German Chancellor Angela Merkel his top European interlocutor.
But today, Merkel is perceived as waning and weakened — and criticized by Trump for not spending enough on defense. For her part, Britain’s Theresa May is busy with Brexit.
Macron’s new “special” status in Washington helps to burnish his international credentials in Europe, not to mention France’s place on the world stage, analysts say. It amounts to a bright spot amid a cascade of domestic problems facing both leaders.
But today, many are waiting to see whether it can produce concrete results. On areas like the status of Jerusalem and climate change, Macron and Trump are far apart — although some experts say the French president still hopes to persuade his U.S. counterpart to rejoin the Paris climate treaty.
Defense is another matter. From targeting Islamist militants in the Sahel to the recent joint strikes against suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities, France and the U.S. work closely together.
“What really sticks France and the United States together — and what Germany and the UK cannot sell to Washington — is this military cooperation,” says The German Marshall Fund’s De Hoop Scheffer. “This general-to-general cooperation …which gives (Macron) leverage on many issues where France and Europe have interests.”
Indeed, on some issues, such as the need for other European allies to spend more on defense, the two leaders broadly agree, experts say. Others, such as a longer-term strategy on Syria, are more complex.
Following the Syria strikes, Macron said he had persuaded Trump to a limited campaign and to stay engaged in the country for the longer term — then appeared to walk back on his remarks after a swift rebuttal from the White House. More fundamentally, perhaps, observers doubt the U.S. president will sign onto Macron’s call for investing in a longer-term political solution in Syria — one that engages key Trump administration nemesis Iran.
But fundamentally, analyst Moreau Defarges believes their views are not so far apart.
“Basically they agree, but they won’t say that,” he says. “They are not ready to intervene in Syria. Because they cannot forget what happened in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq.”
Sticking points: trade, Iran
Trade may prove a trickier matter. Europe wants Washington to make permanent a temporary European exemption for U.S. iron and steel tariffs. The European Union has drawn up a list of U.S. products it may slap retaliatory duties on, if this doesn’t happen.
“We are close allies between the EU and the United States. We cannot live with full confidence with the risk of being hit by those measures and by those new tariffs,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Friday, saying this was necessary to then work with the U.S. on trade issues with China. “We cannot live with a kind of sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.”
Yet paradoxically, Trump’s “America First” trade policies may also have its upsides for Europe, De Hoop Scheffer says — manifest for example, by accelerated trade pacts with Japan and Canada.
“We could say a positive outcome of the Trump presidency and disruptive approach to international relations is it has allowed the European Union to become much more assertive on such issues,” she says, “and much more collective in its response.”
Iran is another big sticking point, as France and other EU nations seek to persuade Trump not to pull out of the 2015 nuclear agreement. With a May 12 deadline looming for Trump to decide on the deal, the Europeans are reportedly considering tougher sanctions against Tehran as an added incentive.
While some analysts, including Moreau Defarges, doubt Trump can be persuaded to stick with the nuclear accord, others believe the U.S. and Europe are narrowing their differences.
And for some, whether Macron leaves Washington with more than just the smiles and handshakes of last year’s Bastille Day visit, may be a key test of Macron’s credibility. Others believe simply being Trump’s main man in Europe is a plus.
“Just the fact he is the one leader who can talk frankly to Donald Trump, who can keep the United States as a reliable — or semi-reliable — partner, and insists on protecting the post-World War II world order,” says analyst Bacharan, “He has almost everything to win, and nothing to lose.”