For all their differences over global policies, President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron have struck up an unexpected friendship and partnership. So much so that Macron is the first foreign leader in the Trump presidency to receive full state visitor treatment, including a lavish dinner, at the White House today.
The bond between the American and French leaders has led to some head scratching in Washington and European capitals given their disputes over issues ranging from the Iran nuclear accord to climate change.
But there is one characteristic the two presidents share: a love of the theatrical. A former television reality show host meets the one-time high school drama class boy who seduced and later married his teacher. Macron has played on this, most famously inviting Trump to the Paris Bastille Day parade last July, which prompted the American commander in chief to order up a similar military parade in Washington later this year.
Unlike other foreign leaders who seemed to play the supplicant to the unpredictable American president, Macron has never been afraid to push or talk back. When they first met in Brussels last May, Macron matched Trump in a mano-a-mano handshake. And after Trump withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change accord, Macron went on television and, speaking English, invited American scientists to emigrate to France and help “make the planet great again.”
Macron will be speaking almost as much English as French in his three-day trip that includes White House meetings, a joint White House news conference and an address to Congress on April 25.
At a recent Atlantic Council session, French Ambassador Gerard Araud offered several explanations for the bonding, which is reinforced in frequent phone conversations. The two leaders talked daily before joint U.S.-French-British airstrikes in Syria last week.
Araud said both men were put in office by electorates rebelling against elites.
“The two presidents have felt this anger and are trying to respond and make policy in a different way,” Araud said.
Emphasizing Macron’s realistic approach, Araud said, “It is important for the president of France to develop a relationship with the most powerful man in the world.”
But the ambassador did acknowledge that differences will remain and probably will be emphasized in news accounts of their meetings. He anticipated there will be no breakthrough on the Iran nuclear accord, which Trump and his close advisers want to exit and which the European signatories are eager to maintain.
Whatever Macron takes away from his Washington trip, he faces tougher going in his efforts to modernize the French economy and to take a leading role in strengthening the 28-nation European Union, which has been battered by populist nationalism from Britain to Italy.
Just as Trump’s theatrical gestures have dismayed some Americans, Macron’s turn in the spotlight has brought criticism, especially among some in the Paris political class and on the French left. Some have mocked his reference to the Roman god of gods Jupiter to describe the role of the French presidency.
But just as Trump’s election caught the Washington political class flat-footed, Macron, at age 39 with no record of running for office, created his own political party and at least temporarily obliterated traditional conservative and socialist parties. His strongest opposition is now on the far left and the far right National Front, whose leader Marine Le Pen received Trump’s endorsement last year.
Striking railway workers and university students have been in the streets of Paris and other cities. What remains to be seen is whether work stoppages, disruptions and traditional French resistance to change, which have thwarted previous presidents, will block Macron’s ambitious plans to create a more entrepreneurial economy, reducing the role of government and especially breaking the grip of strong labor unions.
One of Macron’s domestic advisers, Pierre-Andre Imbert, said the success or failure of the reform plans will depend on whether French voters can be convinced they will lead to better lives for themselves and their children. Timing may also be important. Macron, who has an overwhelming parliamentary majority, is pushing the changes early in his five-year term, hoping voters will see real benefits before the next elections.
Whatever happens in France, the president has run into stronger roadblocks in the European Union, especially with Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, heading a coalition patched together after an inconclusive election last fall, is resisting Macron’s call for deep changes in the management of the common EU currency, the euro.
Merkel, whose relationship with Trump is notably frosty, will follow Macron to Washington and meet with Trump on April 27 in a non-ceremonial visit.