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France’s Macron Pushes Engagement to a Skeptical Trump

  • Lisa Bryant

FILE - President Donald Trump shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at the Palace Hotel, Sept. 18, 2017, in New York.

For France and the United States, November marks the anniversary of tumultuous presidential elections that upended politics-as-usual.

Emmanuel Macron, who took office six months ago Tuesday, and Donald Trump, elected a year ago this month, are both political outsiders with business backgrounds and an appetite for bucking the status quo. Both face powerful domestic resistance to their policies, and plunging polls. Yet their views of the world, home and abroad, could not be more different.

Even their tweeting habits are polar opposites: Macron, as he confessed to Time magazine last week, does not personally tweet or closely follow Trump’s daily Twitter bursts.

The 39-year-old French president has also carved out a world vision of engagement, compared to 71-year-old Trump’s more inward-looking “America first” agenda, and differ on matters ranging from the planet to Iran. And, at the very least, Macron faces an uphill battle as he tries to persuade his U.S. counterpart that his is the better path.

FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron talks with President Donald Trump next to a huge French flag after the Bastille Day parade in Paris, July 14, 2017.
FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron talks with President Donald Trump next to a huge French flag after the Bastille Day parade in Paris, July 14, 2017.

Yet the surprisingly warm rapport forged by the two during Trump’s Bastille Day visit to Paris may at least position Macron as the go-to emissary for a Europe increasingly wary of and unsettled by Washington’s actions.

“If anyone can be the interpreter of the European Union to Donald Trump, it is certainly Emmanuel Macron,” says analyst and historian Nicole Bacharan, who specializes in the United States. "So far, Trump seems to like him, that he’s young, he’s daring, he’s dashing. He represents success.”

“That said,” Bacharan added, “Trump is very fickle, and he can turn on Macron the next day.”

Like Trump, Macron has seen public support erode swiftly since he took office and began ramming through bold and controversial labor, tax and pension reforms. His aloof and autocratic style has been likened to France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, and he has famously compared himself to Jupiter. Polls indicate his approval ratings have fallen as low as 35 percent, on par with his unpopular predecessor, Francois Hollande.

Macron options

But he has managed to duck the massive and crippling street protests that sunk previous governments. And some believe he has few policy options if he is to turn around France's struggling economy.

“Macron must reform France,” says analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute for International Relations. “He will be assessed on his success or failure to reform France.”

Macron is also acting swiftly to exert his influence on the world stage. He champions a stronger more integrated European Union and France’s traditional power alliance with Germany. Even so, he is pursuing “a very classical, French national foreign policy,” says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, who heads the European Council on Foreign Relation’s Paris office.

French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with French military personnel at the naval base during his second day of visit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017.
French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with French military personnel at the naval base during his second day of visit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017.

Macron paid back-to-back visits last week to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia amid mounting concern over the status of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Last month, he held talks in Paris with Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, earning criticism for failing to forcefully address human rights issues.

In Africa, Macron’s overtures reflects more continuation than change, although he has suggested France may act in new areas of the continent. Days after assuming office, he headed to Mali to reaffirm France’s commitment in fighting extremism. In July, he teamed up with regional African presidents to launch a new multinational military force for the Sahel.

The fight against terrorism is one policy area in which U.S. and French interests coincide. While Washington resisted French and African calls for an active supporting role in the Sahel force, it contributed $60 million to shore it up. And France remains a main contributor to the U.S. coalition fighting Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria.

The cooperation reflects a broader reality in French-U.S. relations that have weathered the "freedom fries" low under the Bush administration, more than a decade ago when France in 2003 opposed U.S. military action in Iraq.

“Even during tense moments, the French-American relationship has always worked on lower level,” said analyst Bacharan. “And all of this, diplomacy, military cooperation, intelligence and the struggle against terrorism is still working.”

Paris, Washington planets apart

As Trump mulls pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, Macron is considering a trip to Tehran. Days after the United States announced it was leaving UNESCO, the U.N. body elected former French minister, Audrey Azoulay, as its new chief. Meanwhile, the French president responded to Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change treaty with a new mantra and website, "Make Our Planet Great Again", that revamps Trump’s famous campaign slogan, and by inviting U.S. climate scientists to move to France.

In his interview with Time, Macron said he did not want to be seen as anti-Trump, stressing historic ties between the two countries and what he said was a strong relationship in areas like areas like counterterrorism. “I’m not here to judge or to say, I’m the opponent to anybody,” he told the magazine.

Yet the cordial relations the two leaders forged in July, distinctly improved from their handshake wrestle in May, have not helped push them closer together on key issues like climate change and Iran. Macron has even left Trump out of a long list of leaders invited to a Paris climate summit next month.

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