What should we make of last week’s love fest in Paris between President Trump and French President Macron? On the surface, it was improbable. In the French election just a few months ago, Trump seemed more favorably disposed towards Marine Le Pen than towards Macron. And Trump did the unthinkable, from the French perspective, when he withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.
Macron responded by attempting to ridicule Trump with the slogan “Make our planet great again.” He also tried to strong-arm Trump with a six-second hand squeeze when the two men met for the first time.
Yet there they were last week in Paris acting like good friends. What happened?
The answer, I think, is that both leaders saw an opportunity. Macron, like nearly every French president, wants to be viewed as upholding the glory of France. He wants to be consequential. He wants to be the leading diplomatic player in Europe.
The visit by Trump, coupled with a visit two months ago by Vladimir Putin, gives the appearance that France and Macron himself are at the center of the diplomatic world.
What did Trump have to gain from the visit? To read certain media accounts, you’d think the answer is: a big parade and a fancy meal.
More likely, Trump and his team wanted to combat the impression that the U.S. is isolated. I think they wanted to show that neither our withdrawal from the climate agreement nor various Trump pronouncements that Europeans find objectionable has put us at loggerheads with our traditional European allies.
Trump’s relationship with Angela Merkel precludes, for the time being at least, the kind of love fest we saw in Paris. Theresa May’s standing, tenuous especially compared to Macron’s, made her a less than ideal vehicle. In addition, Britain itself is somewhat on the outside looking in as a result of Brexit. Thus, it was not the ideal venue for a demonstration that the U.S. is still on good terms with Europe.
Is there any downside, from the American perspective, to the Trump-Macron love fest? Perhaps.
First, France, though certainly an ally, is not a terribly reliable one. As for Macron, he seems like a rank opportunist.
None of this matters as long as Trump understands these realities. But if he really expects to have a “special relationship” with France, he’s likely to be disappointed, and the consequences might not be pretty.
Second, if Trump perceives the need to demonstrate good relations with France as a means of offsetting negative impressions stemming from withdrawal from the Paris agreement, etc., that’s a potential problem. It would mean that Trump is, in effect, a supplicant seeking to get back in the good graces of elitist European opinion.
It will take more than a visit to Paris and a fake bromance with Macron to accomplish this. It will take real concessions. Is Trump willing to make them?