Just because the French president gives a good handshake doesn't mean he sees himself as the champion of the liberal West.
- By Benjamin HaddadBenjamin Haddad is a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.
The meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump at their first international summit last month — and the now-infamous handshake that accompanied it — certainly caught the world by surprise.
To some observers, it looked like Macron, white-knuckled and determined, was trying to position himself as a leading voice in the European resistance to the U.S. president. The weeks that followed have only fueled this impression: In an interview with a French newspaper after the handshake, Macron mischievously declared that the act was “not innocent.” The French president continued his happy trolling a few days later, announcing, in a speech in English following Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, that France would “make the planet great again.” (The slogan was even later turned into a website to attract American researchers to France.)
The two men are indeed very different. Though they can both point to business experience, Macron once taught philosophy and can recite Molière from memory; Trump was a reality television star who famously starts out his day on Twitter. More importantly, they won on opposite worldviews: In the debate over open and closed societies, Macron unabashedly embraced the former, with a free market, pro-EU platform, while Trump advocated closed borders, “America First,” and protectionism. Trump himself made little secret of the fact that he would have been happy with the election of Marine Le Pen, Macron’s second-round opponent, calling her “the strongest on what’s been going on in France” just before her resounding loss. Macron himself sharply criticized the U.S. president during his campaign and was endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
It is tempting to see in Macron’s election a direct repudiation of Trump’s populism and, thus, to see the man himself as Europe’s best hope for standing up to Trump. That would be a mistake. In fact, Macron and Trump, different as they are, are likely to get along rather well.
First, the election of Macron wasn’t quite the repudiation of Trumpism that it seems. Macron may have run on a liberal platform — but he was no Hillary Clinton. A newcomer to politics, running for office for the first time with a party created a year ago, Macron managed to capture some of the anti-establishment anger that doomed traditional politicians in France and the United States. Macron explicitly ran against the economic failures of both major French parties, the Socialists and Les Républicains, to reform France’s rigid labor market and fight high unemployment. Like for Trump, few “experts” would have bet on Macron’s victory just a few months before the election. His likely pending victory at the parliamentary elections this weekend will usher in hundreds of new MPs who have never previously held elected office while incumbent parties will be swept away. In addition, his first bill will be aimed at “moralizing” French politics by imposing term limits and barring MPs from hiring family members or working as consultants. You could almost describe it as … draining the swamp?
The U.S. president will find in this former investment banker a pragmatic dealmaker more interested in defending French interests than lecturing Washington about liberal values. Macron sees himself as a realist and claimed the “Gaullo-Mitterrandien” tradition of realist French foreign policy during the campaign. Shortly after the G-7 meeting, he invited Russian President Vladimir Putin for a bilateral summit in Versailles; the press coverage focused on Macron’s strong words against the Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik and their interference in the French presidential campaign. Lost amid the excitement, however, was the straightforward fact that Macron chose to invite Putin to France so early in his presidency to begin with, to discuss cooperation, especially against terrorism. For years, this French attitude of independence has raised eyebrows in Washington; these days, it fits perfectly with Trump’s agenda.
Macron and Trump might also find unexpected common ground on what they expect from Europe. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the then-candidate Macron wrote that it was an opportunity for Europeans to finally speak with a common voice: “We must defend and strengthen a union that allows European countries to speak with a louder voice on the world stage. Mr. Trump’s recent critical remarks about the EU highlight how important this is.” From one perspective, this push for a more integrated and autonomous Europe looks like a challenge to American dominance; from another, it seems to dovetail with Trump’s wariness of free-riding allies.
The French president intends to make the eurozone more effective by promoting better budgetary coordination and the creation of a common finance minister. This will mean convincing Germany to accept deeper integration of the common currency area and to give up trade surpluses that have reinforced imbalances within the EU. While Macron won’t question France’s commitment to NATO, he will nevertheless encourage his European partners to increase their coordination on intelligence sharing, border control, and fighting terrorism. France and Germany have already started discussing proposals for a European defense fund to join forces in developing common technologies on drones and military transports, as well as fund joint efforts in Africa. Instead of embracing movements like Brexit that weaken Europe and leave it even more dependent, the America First president should welcome European leaders who want to strengthen the continent and shoulder more responsibility for defending their own interests and security.
The Obama administration was happy to outsource European affairs to Angela Merkel’s prudent leadership. By contrast, French officials never forgave the administration for its about-face on the infamous red line incident in Syria, when the Obama administration failed to respond to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. During the campaign, Macron supported the Trump administration’s strike on the Shayrat airbase. Paris — always more comfortable with hard power than Berlin — could be a more natural partner for the Trump administration. Like Donald Trump, Macron has repeatedly said his top foreign-policy priority would be fighting Islamism, a term that does not stir the same nervousness among the French political establishment, left or right, that it does in the United States. The new French president supports raising France’s defense spending to 2 percent of GDP.
He also shows signs of continuity with France’s assertive foreign policy of recent years. While Macron poached key figures from the right on economic affairs for his cabinet, the only outgoing Socialist minister he kept was the 69-year-old Jean-Yves Le Drian, who, for five years, was François Hollande’s defense minister. Le Drian, widely respected in French military circles, will be Macron’s Europe and foreign affairs minister and is best known for leading the military intervention against al Qaeda in the Sahel (for which the United States provides logistical and financial support). He was the first French official to visit the United States after the election to meet the transition team. His presence in the new cabinet sends a clear message, as does the fact that Macron’s first visit outside of Europe was to visit troops in Mali. While there, he repeated the message that France would be “uncompromising” in its fight against terrorism. France has 3,000 troops stationed in Mali, its second-largest deployment after Operation Sentinelle on its own soil to fight terrorism. Macron has vowed to continue both operations.
Trump is unpopular in Europe, no doubt, which may in part be why so many have invested their hopes for an anti-Trump champion in Macron. But the widespread loathing for the U.S. president, real though it may be, is unlikely to have a major impact on Macron’s decision-making. The French Constitution grants the president much more leeway than it does, say, the German chancellor in making foreign policy; he is especially unfettered by parliamentary control.
Their initial handshake was uncomfortable, there’s no doubt. And it remains unlikely that Macron and Trump will be taking in any Molière performances together anytime soon. But sometimes a rough handshake can nonetheless be the start of a fruitful relationship.
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