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Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron’s awkward G20 encounter actually has a simple explanation

Reuters/POOL New
Following the rules.
  • Aamna Mohdin
By Aamna Mohdin


Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

French president Emmanuel Macron has, once again, gotten physical with his US counterpart Donald Trump.

The latest incident took place at the G20 summit in Hamburg. When the world leaders gathered for the traditional “family photo,” Macron is seen pushing through the crowd to stand next to Trump. Once Macron reaches the front row, he claps Trump on the shoulder, before taking his place beside the US president.

According to one British newspaper, Macron took the opportunity to “zone in on Trump like a cruise missile.” While some commentators saw the encounter as yet another example of Macron going mano a mano with Trump, French media had a simple explanation.

Macron was actually following “a strict diplomatic rule,” Le Parisien newspaper reports (link in French). According to protocol, the first row is reserved for heads of state, with the longest-serving leaders positioned towards the center and newer arrivals at the ends. Macron thus moved to stand next to Trump, another recently elected president. The middle rows feature heads of G20 governments (Canada’s Justin Trudeau, second row) as well as leaders from non-G20 countries invited as guests (Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, third row). The back row is intended for representatives of international bodies, such as the director of the IMF Christine Lagarde and head of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim.

There was an exception to these rules for Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany (a head-of-government position), who stood in the center of the first row because she was hosting the summit, and her immediate neighbors, Argentina’s president Mauricio Macri (host of the next summit) and Chinese president Xi Jinping (host of the previous summit).

In May, during the NATO summit in Brussels, Macron and Trump engaged in a death-grip handshake, in which their “knuckles turned white and their jaws seemed to clench.” The photos showed Macron grabbing Trump’s hand hard and refusing to let go—even when Trump tried to pull away. Trump, who is notorious for his uncomfortably long handshakes, was seen to have lost at his own game.

Macron went on to explain that the handshake wasn’t an innocent encounter but “a moment of truth.” He added: “We must show that we won’t make small concessions, even symbolic ones, but not to over-publicize it either. I don’t believe in the diplomacy of public invectives but in my bilateral talks, I don’t let anything pass, it’s how one gets respected.”

Correction (July 10): This post was updated to clarify that the middle rows are reserved for heads of governments and guest leaders, and also to explain the arrangement protocol in more detail. 

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