By Justin Sink and Gregory Viscusi
The awkward relationship between Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron that began with a white-knuckle handshake and the U.S. president’s repudiation of the Paris climate accords gets a chance for a reset with Trump’s two-day visit to France.
For Trump, a businessman who first rose to prominence with a book celebrating deal-making, the meeting with the new French president offers an opportunity for the type of face-to-face transactional diplomacy he relishes.
The occasion, the annual Bastille Day parade down the Champs Elysees and the 100th anniversary of the U.S. intervention in World War I, also allows Trump a majestic moment in a European capital with minimal risk of a hostile reception. Even so, controversy over his son Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer will follow him across the Atlantic. A news conference in Paris set for Thursday will be his first since the meeting’s disclosure.
For Macron, a political novice eager to demonstrate international credibility, it’s an opportunity to show that he can face up to Trump on issues where they disagree — climate and trade — while strengthening their partnership on anti-terrorism and Syria.
“Trump’s visit is a political coup for Macron who hasn’t got much of an international career behind him,” said Martin Quencez, Paris-based senior program officer at German Marshall Fund of the U.S.. “There’s been little opposition to the visit because there’s little to gain in marring France’s national day or the memory of the U.S. troops in the war. And if Trump doesn’t respect protocol or blurts out something like he doesn’t believe in climate change, no one will blame Macron. It’s win-win.”
Unpopular in France
Trump is no more popular in France than elsewhere in Europe — only 14 percent of the French expressed confidence in him, according to a Pew Research Center poll published in June, compared with 84 percent who expressed confidence in his predecessor Barack Obama. He and Macron began their relationship with an awkward handshake during a photo op at a May 25 NATO summit during which the two leaders, ages 71 and 39 respectively, appeared to literally test each other’s strength.
Yet the French public backs Macron’s decision to host Trump, with 59 percent approving of the invitation, according to an Elabe poll released on the eve of the visit.
None of France’s major opposition parties or unions have called for protests, though some American expatriate organizations and fringe French groups are planning minor rallies on the outskirts of the capital. Central Paris is already under lock-down ahead of the parade.
Macron is eager to reassert France as a global power, and his invitation to Trump comes on the heels of a similar visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin and a made-for-TV photo-op in which Macron rappelled from a helicopter onto the deck of a French nuclear submarine. The visit — which will include dinner at the Eiffel Tower — shows him in the mix of global diplomacy.
“Macron is ambitious and wants to position France as a strong leader internationally,” said Erik Battberg, director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Standing next to the Russian president and the U.S. president in Paris furthers those goals.”
Syria, Islamic State
The two leaders will focus in their meeting on the turmoil in Syria and the Western coalition fight against Islamic State, according to both White House and Elysee officials who requested anonymity to discuss the meeting before it occurred. During the G-20 summit last weekend, the U.S. announced it had struck a cease-fire agreement to curb violence in southwest Syria. Trump and Macron spoke by phone last month and agreed to carry out joint air strikes should the Syrian regime use chemical weapons again.
Trump is not expected to ask the French to step up their troop contributions or defense spending during their meeting, the White House official said.
French troops are still in Mali fighting Islamic militants after a 2013 intervention, and the U.S. provides logistical and intelligence support. France was the first European country to join U.S. air attacks on Islamic State in Iraq and then Syria, and French special forces and an artillery unit supported Iraqi troops in their battle for Mosul.
The White House also hopes to largely dodge another contentious issue: climate change. While acknowledging the topic may come up when the two leaders meet, the White House official said he didn’t expect the president’s decision to exit the Paris climate accord to dominate discussion.
That tracks with expectations French diplomats set for the meeting.
While climate change may come up, “the main objective is to show our strong friendship over the years and that despite differences we remain close allies,” Emmanuelle Lachaussée, a spokeswoman for the French embassy, said in an email.
Lachausse described the trip as “mainly a symbolic visit” and noted events planned to commemorate U.S.-French joint military efforts, such as visiting the tomb of WWI Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch. As the invitee of honor, the Army’s 1st Infantry Division — the first U.S. unit to enter France during World War I — will march at the front of the parade and six General Dynamics F-16s and two Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors will join French fighter jets for an overflight.
That pageantry of power against a backdrop of monuments and buildings familiar on both sides of the Atlantic may be the biggest draw for two populist outsiders who were both propelled into office in large part because of their instinctive showmanship.
“I do think Macron does — and both leaders quite frankly understand — social media and imagery,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.