French President Emmanuel Macron will receive full state honors in Washington this week, nine months after he rolled out a literal red carpet for Donald Trump on Paris’ Avenue des Champs Elysées.
The three-day visit is likely to feature more displays of public affection between two leaders who talk on the phone constantly and closely coordinated recent airstrikes against Syria. Despite the U.S president’s enormous unpopularity in his country, Macron virtually never criticizes Trump in in public and calls him a “friend.” Trump in turn reportedly even scribbled a love note to the 40-year-old French president last July.
This week’s visit will be “something of a celebration of the relationship,” a senior Trump administration official said.
Few would have predicted such talk just after Macron’s May 2017 election defeat of the nationalist insurgent Marine LePen, whom Trump implied he supported. Macron’s dark-horse win was seen as a rebuke to the western nationalist movement of which Trump has become a symbol. And while the French adored President Barack Obama as a suave intellectual, Trump is seen as the embodiment of a gauche American.
But rather than denounce Trump as many French politicians have, Macron has sought to win Trump over with flattering words. In an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Macron stressed his similarities with Trump, saying both he and the president could be called a “maverick” whose election had been unexpected.
The two men hardly see eye to eye on policy, and are expected to debate the Iran nuclear deal, Syria and trade policy, among other sensitive topics.
But Macron and Trump have worked closely together as Paris takes a larger leadership role on international issues — at a time when Britain is sidelined by political chaos and a weakened German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s relationship with Trump is cool at best.
“Macron has become Trump’s main European interlocutor when it comes to addressing international crises,” Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, wrote in a recent policy paper.
Macron and Trump will share a private dinner Monday evening, followed by a bilateral meeting early Tuesday. They’ll then meet with Cabinet members before a state dinner at the White House. On Wednesday, Macron will address a joint session of Congress.
In their private talks, the two men are likely to focus on security issues, including a fast-approaching decision point for the Iran nuclear deal. French officials say they share some of Trump’s concerns about the July 2015 pact brokered by President Barack Obama, but are urging Trump not to abandon the agreement in mid-May, when Trump has threatened to reimpose sanctions on Tehran.
Macron has sought common ground with Trump by saying the current deal is flawed and that he might be willing to crack down on Iran’s ballistic missile program. But Trump wants much stronger measures that French officials worry could abrogate the deal entirely. A Trump official said the deal would be “a major topic of discussion” during Macron’s visit.
The official also said the two leaders “will discuss, probably in some detail, the way ahead in Syria.”
In a televised debate last week, Macron said he had changed Trump’s mind on the U.S. presence in war-torn Syria: “President Trump said the USA’s will is to disengage from Syria. We convinced him that it was necessary to stay,” the French leader said.
The White House quickly denied that characterization, and Macron later said he never meant the countries should maintain an indefinite military presence in the country.
But on Sunday, Macron told Fox News that he would urge international cooperation during his address to Congress, warning that Iran would benefit from a U.S. and European abandonment of Syria. “We are very much attached to the same values, and especially liberty and peace,” Macron said of America and France.
Trade will also be on the agenda, after Macron and Merkel — who’s due to fly into Washington on April 27, a few days after Macron leaves — both vowed to tell the U.S. president that Europe would not stand for his recent steel tariffs. U.S. officials may in turn complain to Macron’s entourage about a French-led proposal to slap a 3-percent tax on U.S. internet giants.
Despite the menu of issue differences, officials on both sides sought to lower expectations for specific results from the meeting.
“It’s largely symbolic,” an aide to Macron said.
“I think what the President would like to hear from President Macron is his counsel and his point of view and his perspective,” said the Trump official. “Whether we will actually solve, or come to closure, or a full detailed agreement on some of the issues that we’ve touched on is difficult to say at this remove.”
As they work together internationally, Trump and Macron are both fending off political threats at home. A year into his presidency, the French president’s sheen as a political prodigy and savior of European liberalism has been dulled by grinding rail strikes and sagging poll numbers.
Macron wants Trump to stand at his side as the European Union’s soon-to-be sole military power with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, nuclear capability and the will to intervene where others will not.
The April 14 strike on Syria’s chemical facilities bolstered the burgeoning Franco-American relationship, French officials say. Macron and Trump spoke repeatedly during the crisis — and no fewer than seven times over the past month, according to accounts from the Elysée presidential palace.
While Britain also joined the strikes, Merkel barely featured in the Syrian discussions. Characteristically for intervention-averse Germany, she did not order participation in the strikes, commenting on them after the fact as “necessary and appropriate.”
Once the missiles had hit their targets, Macron seized on a chance to drive home his point: While others may waver, France remains a red-blooded beacon of Western power. Paris had intervened in Syria for the “honor of the international community,” he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg
One outstanding question about the Macron-Trump relationship that fascinates commentators in Europe: Does the French president really like Trump, or is he just “playing him”?
European commentators suggested as much last summer when, during Trump’s visit to Paris, Macron mimicked his guest’s signature thumbs-up move to TV cameras.
There may be no definitive answer. Macron is a one-time stage actor who loves to quote classical French playwrights from memory and, as he told a pair of French interviewers last weekend, has “no friends.”
Quizzed about Macron’s apparent affection for Trump, the French president’s aides say he has concluded that befriending Trump and avoiding any direct criticism of the U.S. president that could inflame his temper are the best ways of keeping Trump — and the United States — on his nation’s side.