Rendez-vous in Paris: Trump vs. Macron, Round No. 4
Paris sera toujours Paris, as the title of a famous song rightfully acknowledges: traditionally a land of grace and sophistication that inspired poets and artists for centuries, and the shiniest jewel in Europe’s crown, which, through its charme et charactere, can impress everyone who happens to be its guest, including world famous political leaders. Recently, it hosted one of the most important events on the current international relations agenda, namely a high-level meeting between the newly elected chef d'État of the French Republic, the young Emmanuel Macron, and the President of the United States, an already controversial figure, although relatively new in his position as well, Donald J. Trump. After their first three meetings at the NATO and G7 summits in May, and at the G20 summit in early July, during which each of them has been trying to tilt the balance of power, Macron invited Trump over on Bastille Day to celebrate and extend France’s thanks on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the US entry in the First World War. The anniversary was an excellent pretext for the two to get together and talk real politics, settle disagreements and figure out common approaches to the most important international problems, such as terrorism and climate change.
Trump and Macron are poles apart: the former is a nationalist with an anti-immigration and anti-free trade agenda, the latter is a proud globalist who is celebrated for having come to power by defeating far-right nationalism and winning legislative elections by landslides. Macron believes in a strong European Union and pushes for a collective approach to solving cross-border problems, while Trump sees Brexit as a ‘great thing’ and does not really care about much outside domestic affairs. Temperamentally, they are also different, with Macron being a well-skilled diplomat trained in France’s elite schools that dominate among the country’s high-level officials, while Trump shares a direct-style entrepreneurial approach, often criticized for trying to run a country the same way as a business. With this divergence in attitude, policy and behavior, the two did not meet in Paris to become best friends, at least not in the traditional meaning of friendship, although their long handshakes and walks with their hands on each other’s back might suggest at least an appearance of cordiality.
On the one hand, apart from his taste for traveling away from domestic troubles, Trump came over to Paris as he needs a strong ally among Europe’s most powerful nations, especially since the last G20 summit in Hamburg. Some commented that it looked more like a G19 summit as the American President was left isolated by the rest of political leaders following their disapproval of Trump’s recent policy decisions, especially the one concerning the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The United Kingdom is, at the moment, too self-absorbed in its domestic affairs, and, anyway, no longer seen as part of Europe’s core, while Germany’s Angela Merkel made it clear that Europe cannot rely on Donald Trump anymore. On the other hand, Emmanuel Macron, who has just taken office, wants to position himself as a firm, decisive leader, ready to stand up to Donald Trump, and maybe even persuade him to adopt certain policy directions or change his approach on relevant international issues. In fact, Macron’s entire presidential campaign was about putting France En Marche! reforming it not only when it comes to its inner economic and social mechanisms, but also in terms of its image on the world stage, by making it reaffirm itself as a strong power and a relevant actor in international affairs. Inviting Trump to Paris has been seen, in France and overseas, as an attempt to keep the US engaged and focused. After all, presidents know that it is their first actions, the attitudes displayed at the beginning of their term, while they are still in the spotlight, which shape their image in the eyes of the public, at home and abroad. As it is in life, in general, the first impression sticks with us the longest, and only major events, positive or negative, can make it change afterwards. Therefore, the stakes were high, making the meeting between the leaders of these two powerful nations a much needed and important one for the political interests of both parties.
Yet the two managed to find common (policy) ground, at least in terms of some issues that have proved to be of mutual concern. The first one is counter-terrorism, since ISIS is a common enemy, and not only that both countries have been, at different points in time, plagued by terror, but they are also still threatened by it. After Brexit, France remains the strongest military power in the EU, and it needs to reassure its reliable allies, while Trump is still tactically ambiguous on his NATO skepticism after NATO’s recently stated intentions to expand its focus on counter-terrorism. Following bilateral discussions, Macron and Trump announced that they have agreed on a common roadmap for a stronger fight against terrorism and supporting peace in Syria, which may sound like boilerplate political rhetoric, but which came as a reassuring declaration of strength at a time when France commemorates a year since the 2016 terror attack in Nice. Asked about his past criticism, Donald Trump, who previously labeled Paris as an unsafe and dangerous place threatened by Islamic terrorism, claimed that we will have “a very, very peaceful and beautiful Paris”, and the city will be “just fine”. A(nother) sudden change of opinion, good PR, or the expression of a solid commitment as the result of bilateral discussions? It is too soon to tell.
The second important point on the agenda was climate change policy, where Trump and Macron are known for sharing completely opposed views. Macron is a strong supporter of a global approach to climate change issues, and has been among the most fervent critics of Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, pointing out that it is our planet, not only America, which needs to be made great again. On the other side, Trump decided that the US would no longer be part of the Agreement, arguing that the pact imposes unfair and unshared burdens for the country, and seeing it as a threat to the economy and to American sovereignty. Trump claimed that he was elected “to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”, yet ironically Paris might have made him change his mind again. During the meeting, both presidents displayed a more flexible approach, as Macron reiterated his position but without any attempt to publicly criticize his counterpart, while Trump acknowledged that “something could happen with the Paris Agreement”, although what will happen or when it will happen is left to be discussed in the following period. Since political analysts do not expect Trump to seriously reconsider his position, if Macron will convince him of making even the slightest concession, then the French President will gain important political capital both at home and abroad.
Other questions were answered during Donald Trump’s visit to Paris, as the US President commented also about his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer, in between expressions of his appreciation for Macron’s determination to reduce bureaucracy in France during the press conference held at Élysée Palace. An air of agreement, cooperation and possible future policy changes surrounded the meeting between the French and the American leader, suggesting that, as Macron himself claimed, having divergent views on certain policy issues should not stop the two nations from working together, at least on what they agree upon. However, it is yet not sure how much of Trump’s optimistic answers came just from his wish to ensure that the friendly relation with Macron will continue, and whether his attitude was motivated by their very productive policy talks, or rather the momentary agreeableness induced by the dazzling military parade organized on Bastille Day and the fancy private dinner he was invited to in the fabled Eiffel Tower. Donald Trump rightly described France as “America’s first and oldest ally”, but whether it will also be its future one and for how long still remains to be seen. If not, at least they’ll always have Paris…