Argument

What if Macron Wasn’t Just Putting on a Show for Donald Trump?

What if the French president actually likes him?

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It must have been a tempting prospect for a political prodigy.

Emmanuel Macron is young and intelligent, with a charmed career. He jumped the generational queue and scrambled French politics with his out-of-nowhere presidential victory. Then he completed his disruption from the center when his brand-new party won an absolute majority in parliament. Now, Macron sees that for at least three and a half years of his five-year term, his U.S. counterpart will be Donald Trump. Not ideal, perhaps. But why not win him over, smother him with kindness?

And so Macron became the self-appointed Trump Whisperer. Over the course of two days in Paris last week, the two presidents reviewed troops, paid homage at the tomb of Napoleon, dined in the Eiffel Tower restaurant with their spouses, heard a military band perform a Daft Punk medley, and added to their archive of competitive-primate handshakes. They spent more time in private tête-à-tête and casual interaction than Trump usually devotes to foreign leaders. And in their comments to reporters, each underlined not just the ancient ties between France and the U.S., but their own budding personal friendship.

What’s Macron up to? By inviting Trump to the Bastille Day celebration, and using the centennial of American entry into World War I as an excuse for U.S. soldiers to parade down the Champs-Elysées, he offered a prestige podium to an American president who is roundly disliked by Macron’s close associates in Berlin and Brussels, not to mention by the French public, which still pines for Barack Obama. The visit also seemed to jar with Macron’s fast retort when Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord just last month; the French president was on television within hours, with a statement in French and English reaffirming the accord and inviting American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to consider France their home. The slogan he deployed that night, “Make Our Planet Great Again,” was instantly interpreted as “trolling” Trump.

In fact, Macron is performing the role of French head of state as he sees it, in the vein he has already shown on multiple fronts: quasi-regal, high on ceremony, while pragmatic and somewhat ruthless. He has shown himself adept at grand gestures with mixed meanings: In June, he received Putin in the ornate surroundings of Versailles palace — again with an historical hook, this one an art exhibition on Peter the Great — and used the opportunity to exhibit himself as both welcoming of the Russian president and unafraid to challenge him. The red-carpet treatment of Trump, with its military pomp and visits to the most iconic tourist sites in Paris, is consistent with this approach, with the public display of affection turned up high as befits an alliance that stretches back to the era of Benjamin Franklin and Marquis de Lafayette.

It may seem grotesque to place Donald Trump, of all people, in this lineage, but he is the U.S. president. As French journalist Laurence Haïm, a former Washington correspondent who was a Macron spokesperson during his campaign, pointed out on France Culture radio Friday morning, Macron said all along he intended to work with Trump. The first time Haïm met Macron, in November, she thought he would speak ill of America’s new president-elect, but he told her that Trump, having been duly elected, would need to be engaged.

On a transactional level, Macron has plenty to gain from a well-disposed Trump. Probably not on climate — it seems unlikely that Trump’s allusion that “something could happen” on that front will translate into a real shift in U.S. policy — but on a host of less-visible matters. For instance, the United States has been reluctant to consent to U.N. funding for the G-5 Sahel military force, an effort by five African governments to combat armed extremists on the continent, which France strongly backs; a signal from Trump to Nikki Haley could soften this stance. Embracing Trump is a speculative investment for Macron; it will likely yield some small benefits, and might produce some big, if presently unknown, return.

Just as important, it costs him little – at least in the current equation. On the European front, Macron’s key partners dislike Trump — beginning with Angela Merkel, who in addition has an upcoming election to deal with. Merkel met with Macron at the Elysée the morning of Trump’s arrival, then quickly departed for Berlin rather than cross paths with the U.S. president. There is every likelihood that the French and German leaders are coordinating their approaches; it is too soon, and there is not yet enough evidence, for the rest of Europe to accuse France of freelancing.

As for the domestic front, Macron and his party have complete control of the French political arena; they have co-opted key figures from both right and left of center; the opposition is ideologically diffuse, and its main components — particularly the Socialist and Les Républicains parties — are in disarray. The National Front is reeling from Marine Le Pen’s worse-than-expected defeat, and her leadership has taken a hit. On the insurgent left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a vocal presence and his La France Insoumise party a viable player, but its prospects are hostage to a broader recomposition of the left that has begun but could take many years.

Indeed, French reaction to last week’s love-fest was relatively muted, more quizzical than outraged. Television pundits agreed, in the main, that Macron’s embrace of Trump makes sense as realpolitik and is consistent with his other international moves. France is still getting to know its new president; the Trump visit is just one episode in the discovery. (A public spat between the president and the country’s top general, over defense budget issues, has caused far more shock in the last few days.) Even though Macron proudly touted Obama’s support before the election — at a time when Trump praised Le Pen — the new Trump-Macron rapport is less incongruous to the French political imagination than it might seem to Americans. The culture of the Fifth Republic favors foreign policy that looks bold, assertive, and iconoclastic when in service of the national interest.

The lurking worry about the budding Trump-Macron relationship is that Macron may actually be enjoying it. It’s easy to shrug off, with a nod and a wink, the trappings of the visit — for instance, the choice of the tourist-trap Eiffel Tower restaurant (and the insipid menu) for the intimate couples’ dinner on July 13 — as no more than bait for Trump’s narcissism. One presumes that when Trump leered at Brigitte Macron, then remarked to her husband on her “great physical shape,” the French president suppressed his disgust for the sake of diplomacy. But who knows? There is an authoritarian dismissiveness to Macron that has earned him comparisons to Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon Bonaparte. He seems to fetishize the military. He is rationing media access. Though well-spoken, he puts his command of the language in the service of trite ideas, delivered in florid speeches. And he has a growing record of casual comments loaded with class and racial contempt.

In short, Macron might not be as repulsed by Trump as, say, Angela Merkel clearly is. He may view the U.S. president as not just an unavoidable geopolitical interlocutor, but also a fun curiosity. He may, indeed, genuinely like him. We don’t know — and Macron is too canny to tell us, until the moment when doing so advances a political opportunity. The more genuine the chemistry, the easier the relational aspect of Macron’s role as Trump whisperer. But it will bring growing suspicion of French adventurism from Macron’s EU colleagues, and, in due course, stoke a backlash at home that could prove fierce.

Image credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

Siddhartha Mitter is an independent journalist in New York City. He tweets @siddhmi.

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