What to watch for when Trump and Macron meet in Paris

Old sparring partners.
Old sparring partners.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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US president Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron don’t see eye-to-eye on much.

One is a 39-year-old pro-European Union, socially liberal internationalist, who is fiercely dedicated to saving the environment, and views his few years working in the private sector as an embarrassing mistake (paywall).

The other is a gilded 71-year-old mogul, who’s made a priority of reneging from global trade and environmental agreements, and has made the liberal world cringe with attempted travel bans on majority-Muslim countries and by pulling back protections (paywall) for transgender young people.

The pair’s relationship so far can be summed up in one moment: the bone-crushing handshake they shared when first meeting at the G7 summit in Italy. They’ve also traded verbal blows, with Macron goading Trump in PR-savvy calls to “Make our planet great again,” while Trump pointedly said he represents “Pittsburgh not Paris” when pulling out of the international Paris climate agreement.

So, it came rather out of the blue when Macron swapped his vice-like grip for a hand of friendship, inviting the US president to the French capital to dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and celebrate Bastille day and the 100th anniversary of America joining World War I.

We asked four experts on both sides of the Atlantic what to look out for, as Trump visits Paris while his administration is bombarded by questions about his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.

What are both leaders getting out of this?

In a word: stature. Both men are political neophytes with much to prove on the world stage, and will hope that watching over a show of mutual military might in the Bastille day parade will make them look like forces to be reckoned with.

For Trump, the trip is about repairing damage done in his disastrous past two Europe trips, says Spencer Boyer, who was national intelligence officer for Europe under president Obama. “What Trump wants is a counter-narrative against the story of his unpopularity abroad, especially in Europe,” Boyer says, pointing at poll numbers that show global confidence in Trump at 22%. “It’s an opportunity to show that this narrative—that he would say is painted by fake news and opponents in the US and around the world—is not true. He’ll undoubtedly soak up the full pageantry on display, of a military parade with French and American troops marching down the Champs-Élysées.”

Macron, on the other hand, is seeking to establish a global reputation that belies his youth and inexperience. Transatlantic relations are at a historic low, and, given Britain’s isolation over Brexit and German chancellor Angela Merkel’s terse relationship with Trump, Macron has spied an opportunity to be at Europe’s helm on the matter, says Nicolas Tenzer, president of CERAP think tank in Paris, and head of Le Banquet magazine. “This is an attempt by Macron to launch a seduction of Donald Trump,” he says. “The relationship between France and the US is becoming more important then ever… in Macron’s mind, this is a realistic attempt to bridge the gap between the two sides of the Atlantic.”

And July 14th is the perfect day to do it, says Richard Maher, an American political scientist at the European University Institute who specializes on Europe’s role in the world. “Macron wants to remind Trump of the vital US role in Europe [and] this year marks the 100th anniversary of the US entry into World War I,” he wrote in an email. “Macron also does not want Trump to become too isolated from America’s traditional European allies, even though there are major disagreements over climate policy and trade. French officials have said they believe they can have a “restraining” influence on Trump.”

As Trump makes a habit of haranguing the European NATO allies over their defense spending, it’s also a chance to dazzle him with France’s firepower. The country is just short of a 2% military spending target for NATO countries and Macron seems to have achieved a concession from the White House that Trump won’t publicly mention the matter.

Will the French make Trump welcome on their national day?

The US president hasn’t exactly seemed as desperate to please the French public in the last year or so. During the campaign, Trump made America’s Gallic allies something of a punching bag, at one point saying, “France is no longer France”—ostensibly because of the levels of Muslim immigration there. The French seem to have responded with a disdainful shrug, with one recent poll showing just 14% of them have confidence in Trump’s foreign policy, compared to 84% for Obama when he was in office.

So, it’s unsurprising that his invitation to their national holiday has raised some eyebrows. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who just missed out on joining Macron in the final round of the presidential election, said (link in French) that Trump is “not welcome on the 14th July celebration… Mr Trump is violent, he has no reason to be there.”

Massive protests against the very idea of Trump visiting the UK seem to have played a part in postponing his visit there, but Tenzer doesn’t expect the French to turn out in these kinds of numbers. “I think most of the French people won’t pay a lot attention [to Trump],” he says. “The alliance between the US and the French and the US and Europe really matters, notwithstanding who the president of the US is.” 

There will nonetheless be some protests, says Philippe LeCorre of the Brookings Institute in Washington, a former top aide in France’s defence ministry, but “some French will probably acknowledge his status as U.S. president and will approve of Macron’s diplomatic “coup” of having the first bilateral visit by Trump to any western country,” he wrote in an email.

What are they going to discuss? Will we see new policy announcements?

None of the four experts quizzed thought anything tangible is going to be unveiled—this is all about symbolism. As Boyer puts it: “The overall atmosphere will be probably be more important than a detailed set of policy proposals.”

The White House has said the top issues to be discussed are Syria and counterterrorism. The two countries have a long history of working together on the latter. But the question of Russia’s role in Syria will be the “elephant in the room,” Boyer says. “Macron has been much more critical of Russian interference and more skeptical of Russian aims than president Trump.” However, he’ll have to tread carefully to keep Trump onside.

“Macron’s idea is to boost the US and the EU’s pressure on Russia to broaden the scope of the discussions on Syria’s fate. If Macron wants to have true commitment of the international community on Syria, obviously the US must be on board,” said Tenzer.

Will Macron publicly shame Trump on climate change again?

Experts were divided. Maher expected him to be “frank” behind closed doors, “but Macron does not want to antagonize Trump, so I do not expect any public sparring,” he wrote. Boyer on the other hand didn’t expect him to “shy away” if reporters ask him about it. “It will be interesting to see how the president responds,” he said.

Openly criticizing him might be a mistake, though. Trump’s time in office has shown that flattery is a far more effective way of changing his mind than criticism, and, according to Tenzer, “there is a secret hope from Macron and other European leaders Trump could revisit his position.”

Anything else to look out for?

In Trump’s bombastic display in Brussels in May, he reportedly shocked his national security team by deliberately cutting out the mention of any support for NATO’s Article V. Since then, Europe has breathed a sigh of relief every time he’s said he backs the clause that guarantees that an attack on one ally is an attack against all. There’ll be a lot of pressure for it to come up again on this anniversary of America coming to Europe’s rescue in 1917.

Beyond that, as the notorious handshake showed, it’s often the small things that make the difference. So, all eyes on eyes on pomp, circumstance, and accoutrements. For example, will Trump try some cultural assimilation when he and Macron dine at the glitzy Le Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower? The Michelin-starred restaurant reportedly doesn’t serve the US president’s beloved well-done steak with ketchup.