French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the U.S. put his affection for President Donald Trump on full display. The trip was good for the Macron brand and it didn’t hurt Trump either. But are there any benefits for the rest of the world?
At the very end of the trip, after he had bear-hugged Donald Trump and held a feisty speech in Congress and just two hours before his Airbus plane, decorated with the Tricolour, is set to take off on its way back to Paris, Emmanuel Macron plops down in an armchair in a dimly lit, room at George Washington University. “I’m yours,” he says to the small group of journalists he has invited for a sit-down.
If he is tired, which would certainly be understandable after the last few days, he doesn’t show it. He has grown thinner after almost a year in office and a thick layer of makeup covers his face. It makes him seem unnaturally tanned — almost as though some of Donald Trump’s color has rubbed off on him.
Macron looks expectantly at the gathered journalists, some of the most prominent commentators in the United States. For Macron, the meeting is a chance to talk about his state visit — a visit that produced myriad images in the global media. And the French president wants to talk a bit about those images, to have the last word, so to speak.
As usual, Macron is behind schedule, turning up almost an hour late. He has never met a schedule that can keep him in line, no matter how influential the people who are waiting on him might be. When Macron visited German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last week, he showed up 35 minutes late.
Macron captivated his American hosts during his visit, with his appearances — both here and elsewhere — increasingly resembling those of a popstar. In Washington, people were lined up to see him, taking pictures with their mobile phones and calling out: “Mister President!” and “Emmanoooelll!”
Shortly before his meeting with the press, Macron spoke with students at the university. With no jacket and his sleeves rolled up in a style reminiscent of Barack Obama, Macron stood in the middle of a vast auditorium and did what he so often and so willingly does: He spoke and answered questions for more than an hour.
“What steps and precautions do you hope to take to protect Jewish citizens like my grandparents in France?” asked one student.
“Many young people here have been inspired by your progress and the En Marche and I’m wondering, what advice do you have for us who might be frustrated … by the two-party system?” asked another.
He stood on the stage speaking English with no notes, something no French president before him has ever done, even if his accent is relatively strong. Like a preacher, he exhorted the students to disregard those who tell them they can only find success by obeying the rules. “That’s bullshit,” he said to laughter.
When he finally stepped down off the stage and made his way to the room full of waiting journalists, a group representing the country’s liberal elite, it didn’t take long before he impressed them just as he had the students in the auditorium a short time before and the Senators and Representatives before that. And all that despite his “very special relationship” with Donald Trump, the hated president who he seemingly couldn’t keep his hands off the day before. It was quite an achievement.
Filled with Dread
For Macron, despite some of the images bordering on the embarrassing, the visit was a success. He has emerged from the trip with an even more prominent position on the world stage than he had when it started.
In seems almost as though this state visit was a present for his first anniversary in office. It was the first such invitation extended by Trump and both the French and the Americans repeatedly emphasized what an honor it was. Almost as though the trip itself was sufficient proof that Emmanuel Macron, the 40-year-old president of France, had risen — at least for the moment — to the very top of the European political pecking order. Analyst after analyst insisted on pointing out that Merkel’s reception upon her arrival in Washington on Friday was far less grand.
The French president’s visit to the U.S. capital came almost exactly a year after Macron easily defeated right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, a victory that filled liberals around the world with hope just as Trump’s victory a half-year earlier had filled them with dread. It is one of the singularities of international politics that these two men, who stand for so much that is contradictory, apparently have a great deal of fondness for one another.
What must the French think of the bond? Macron tells the group of journalists on the evening of his departure that he thinks they are proud of him. And public opinion surveys would seem to support that assessment. Some 40 percent of the French are satisfied with his performance thus far, hardly stratospheric numbers but much better than those of his predecessor François Hollande at the same moment in his presidency. He is, to be sure, facing headwinds at home: rail workers are striking, as are others that he has angered with his reform plans. The media, too, is full of increasingly sharp criticism. But he left all of that far behind during the few days he spent in Washington.
On Monday at 1 p.m., Macron landed at Andrews Air Force Base just outside the U.S. capital, the gangway bumping roughly into the side of the A330 aircraft. Then the president emerged and had hardly spent three minutes on American soil before giving a brief address to the press. The visit was a great honor, he said in English, before repeating the same sentiment in French for good measure. The Airbus was still roaring in the background.
He quickly went over his itinerary: the meeting with Trump at Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s countryside estate; the meetings at the White House; the speech to Congress. His visit, he said, would touch on all matters of importance, particularly vital issues such as security, climate change and the trade war with Europe. “Many decisions” would be made during the visit, Macron said, because there were “many uncertainties.”
The uncertainties, to be sure, remain even after his departure. But the visit will primarily be remembered for the images it produced. Images of these two vastly different men who repeatedly emphasized the respect and affinity they hold for each other — with words, with kisses and with hugs. Those following the visit up close for three days quickly found it all to be a bit much. The ostentatious displays of friendship between Macron and Trump, it is a show of which the two of them are the primary beneficiaries.
Trump benefits because he can be seen at the side of a young political idol who, in contrast to Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May, actually laughs at his jokes and who, during their joint press conference, spontaneously planted a kiss on his cheek.
“As President Trump just correctly said,” Macron said, “cher Donald, we have a lot in common.” Macron has an entire arsenal of rhetorical niceties at his disposal to keep his counterpart in a good mood, little snippets that he sprinkles into his comments every couple sentences or so: yet another mention of the 240-year bond between the two countries; the shared history; La Fayette and Washington.
The visit, though, was also beneficial to Macron, and not just because it was proof that France is back on the global stage after an extended absence. He is now seen by some Americans as the savior of the West and its values. A year ago, that mantle was (largely unwillingly) worn by Angela Merkel, but the tone she adopted early on with Trump was a frosty one and it has remained so, resulting in her having little influence over him. Some are even calling Macron the “Trump whisperer.” He realized early on how to deal with this man who understands more about show business than he does about politics. And how much potential his presidency holds, not least for Macron himself.
The question, though, is how the rest of the world might benefit from this relationship. But even after this most recent trip, the answer remains unclear.
Initially, it doesn’t seem as though Macron has succeeded in getting Trump to fundamentally change his position on any issue at all. On the contrary. The tariffs on European aluminum and steel imports are likely to come into effect at the beginning of May. And whether Trump will back out of the Iran nuclear deal or not remains a mystery. “Nobody knows what I’m going to do,” he crowed during the press conference, as though global politics were a quiz show.
‘He Is Very Predictable’
In Washington, Macron spoke out in favor of a “more comprehensive deal,” as agreed to with his European partners prior to the trip. The hope is to get Trump to refrain from discarding the deal, working instead to expand it to include aspects that are important to the U.S. president. Aspects pertaining to Iranian missile tests or Tehran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East, for example. Trump must make his decision by May 12 at the latest, consistent with the requirement that he renew the suspension of sanctions on Iran every 120 days. If it doesn’t, it won’t automatically mean that the nuclear deal is dead, but it would certainly put it on the path toward dissolution. Iran, after all, has already indicated that it would resume enriching uranium should Trump reinstate sanctions.
Back in the room at George Washington University prior to his flight home, Macron tells the gathered journalists that he doesn’t know what Trump will decide on May 12, but says he isn’t very optimistic. “When a lot of people say Trump isn’t predictable, I think the opposite,” Macron says. “He is very predictable.” Trump does what he has promised he will do, the French president says — which doesn’t bode well for stability in the Middle East.
On the wall next to Macron is a sentence spelled out in white letters: “We will change the world.” But Macron had nothing to do with the messaging. The room for the meeting was picked out by the Secret Service. Behind Macron, his diplomatic adviser Philippe Étienne is tapping out a message on his mobile phone while the French ambassador naps on the sofa. State visits, and this one perhaps more than others, can be rather strenuous.
One after the other, the journalists present prod Macron with questions about Iran. It’s not every day, after all, that you get to sit down with the French president, who answers all queries patiently and at length. The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wants to know if Macron’s visit will have been a failure if Trump allows the Iran deal to fail. Why? a wide-eyed Macron shoots back. “I never said, ‘I will convince Mr. Trump,'” he responds.
When asked if the U.S. president even knows what is in the deal, Macron quickly responds by saying he has no reason to believe otherwise.
Here too, among some of Trump’s greatest critics, Macron would like to make a positive impression. His magic is to have its effect. After three days of buddying up to Trump, he would like to explain himself, but in such a way that it doesn’t make the world’s most powerful, and perhaps most hated, man look bad.
Macron loves challenges like that. He is unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat.
Back home in France, he is able to explain to angry pensioners why he is cutting their payments in such a way that they come away with a smile on their faces. He can hold forth to Catholic bishops about the possibilities opened up by artificial insemination and be rewarded with applause.
But how far can his sincerity take him with someone like Trump? Is it even possible to trust Trump?
“Yes,” says Macron without hesitation. He then quotes the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Trust is something you give to someone, it isn’t something that the other person has to earn.
“I have given him my trust,” Macron says, for there was no alternative. Europe and the U.S. have no choice but to be allied, he continues. “I trust him very much because I want him to be part of our club,” Macron says looking intently at the journalists surrounding him.
He believes that he can succeed in binding Trump to Europe and its values by way of a personal relationship, by way of this strange bromance. Or at least he seeks to generate a certain amount of influence over Trump. And with a little luck, perhaps he can keep Trump from completely abandoning the climate deal and the Iran agreement.
Thus far, Macron has seen no reason to doubt his seductive abilities. He has been successful in most of what he has set out to do. There have, though, been some setbacks. Despite his celebrated speech last year at the Sorbonne, the EU hasn’t taken a significant step forward. His large gestures may be impressive, but are the effective?
The Rest of the World’s Turn
Macron is aware that his recipe for success may meet its match in Donald Trump. Prior to becoming French president, he often answered questions about his future with an English phrase: “The sky is the limit.” Thus far, it has been largely true. First as a young minister in Hollande’s cabinet and then as president, he has stirred his country, reforming and renewing France more rapidly than any of his predecessors. Now, it is the rest of the world’s turn.
Macron’s visit to the United States was reminiscent of the beginning of his presidency, when he also intentionally staged memorable events with deep symbolic effect, moments that reinfused the presidency with the necessary dignity — a process that seemed badly needed in the wake of Hollande’s presidency, full as it was of images of the feeble-looking president with fogged glasses standing in a downpour. Macron’s predecessor was a weak, sad figure of whom the French were ultimately ashamed.
But then came Macron, striding across the courtyard of the Louvre to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Rappelling down from a helicopter to the deck of a submarine in uniform. Signing laws at his desk surrounded by his cabinet. Last June, when his official portrait was presented — to be hung in schools and government buildings — he released a video at the same time, documenting the photo shoot. It was a kind of “making-of” video, showing him put down his two mobile phones and pick up a book, lost in thought.
“Politics is a style, a kind of magic. You have to define the essence of the message you wish to impart,” Macron once said. That is his maxim and that is what has guided his actions from the very beginning. He establishes a feeling of closeness, an illusion of informality. But the amount of control he exerts over how it is depicted could hardly be greater.
Some French journalists believe that Macron is so obsessed with controlling everything that this desire is even at odds with democratic principles. One reporter from a large French daily who has written about the country’s politics for years even had herself transferred to a different beat. She says it is impossible to get reliable information out of the Élysée anymore. Macron is so bent on controlling the flow of information that his aides and confidants prefer not to say anything at all.
The most immediate images and videos of Emmanuel Macron are to be found on his Facebook page. And it was no different during his state visit to Washington. It is possible to accompany Macron live on Facebook without having to spend hours waiting behind red barrier tape.
You can watch videos of the French president shortly after his arrival taking a spontaneously arranged walk to the Lincoln Memorial and shaking hands with passersby. You can also watch an eight-second video of him and his wife Brigitte deciding to go for stroll. “Let’s have a walk,” Emmanuel says, in English of course. “If you want,” she replies, briefly smiling into the camera.
But during his three days with Donald Trump, even a perfectionist like Macron was unable to control all of the images. There were several rather odd moments, such as when he and Trump planted a French oak together next to the White House, their wives sinking into the grass in their high heels as the two men shoveled a bit of dirt onto the roots of the spindly tree. Or when Trump brushed dandruff from the Frenchman’s shoulders. Or when he grabbed Macron’s hand and led him away like a small child.
Some admire Macron for his composure at Trump’s side. Others are repelled by it. “Un voyage pour l’image,” says one member of his delegation, a trip for the images.
The high point of his visit, though, was his speech before the two houses of Congress. He transformed the chamber into his own arena, cheered even as he entered. After all the criticism for his doting relationship with Trump, he thrilled the U.S. president’s political opponents with a pugnacious speech.
Nationalism Is an Illusion
The worldview Macron laid out in Congress contradicts Trump’s own on virtually every single point. He condemned isolationism, saying that pulling away from the affairs of the world leaves a vacuum. “Other powers, with a stronger strategy and ambition, will then fill the void we would leave empty,” he said. “You can play with fears and anger for a time. But they do not construct anything.” Nationalism, he intimated, is an illusion.
He said that America’s Iran policy could lead to a new war in the Middle East. The sovereignty of all nations must be respected, he said, even that of Iran. Only the Democrats applauded that line.
The speech, like the entire visit, was akin to walking a tightrope. But at the end, everyone liked him anyway. Only one Republican Representative from Kentucky seemed put off, tweeting “French President is a socialist militarist globalist science-alarmist.” Whatever that might be.
The time has come for the final question in Macron’s sit-down with journalists at George Washington University. It’s almost time for him to board the plane home. Does he really like Trump as much as he made it seem during the last three days? Is the relationship between two such obviously different men actually real?
Macron slides to the edge of the armchair, but not because the question has made him feel uncomfortable in any way. “Listen,” he says. “I have my way of expressing affection.” His guests grin. “And Donald Trump has his. The two styles have now mixed,” Macron continues to laughter.
“We are both mavericks in our respective political systems.” Both are presidents, and both beat the odds by winning their elections. That’s what binds them. Two outsiders who have managed to become the most powerful men in their countries. They both love the cameras and enjoy a good show. They are as different as it is possible to be, but somehow, they are quite similar nonetheless.
Macron has to go. He stands up, smiles and shakes hands with everybody in the room. Then he leaves, knowing that once again, he has won.