Will Jupiter Bless America?
“Hocus Potus”. What kind of spell has Emmanuel Macron cast on Donald Trump? A few days ago, during an Institut Montaigne visit to Washington DC, our interlocutors were convinced of the French President’s uncommon ability to make himself heard to theirs, at a time in which no other political leaders, from Ms May to Ms Merkel, seem to be capable of such alchemy.
An observation: they definitely have nothing in common
One may ask: how is this the case? Apart from their role as heads of state, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron seem to have nothing in common. In fact they are each other’s antithesis, the most blatant example of which is their age difference: the former is over 70 years old; the latter will have turned 40 by the end of this year. They are also from significantly different professional backgrounds. While Trump is a businessman of the cynical type - his entire life has been dedicated to negotiating and closing deals -, Macron used to be a civil servant and was trained as such, in spite of his portrayal in international media as a successful investment banker (he only spent 4 years at Rothschild & Cie). Moreover, the French president has proved to be one of the main advocates of the European project and in this role, he has committed to reconcile France with globalization. His American counterpart embodies US nationalism above all else, as reflected in his approach to put “America First”. His populism has led him to sympathize with Alt Right movements, a move that is likely never to cross Macron’s mind. In a nutshell, Macron’s way of thinking is typically Cartesian as is often the case among French elites, who promote straightforward, rational and intellectual approaches. Trump, on the other hand, is irrational, unpredictable and irreconcilable with intellectuals, advisors and experts, unless they come from the army or defense (or his family). All in all, were Macron a US citizen, one may expect he would be a figure similar to the rising star Obama proved to be in 2008. Contrastly, were Trump to be French, it is likely he would have found comfort in the Le Pen clan.
During their respective presidential campaigns, their fierce oppositions appeared clearly. Trump showed evidence of contempt about Europe, its institutions but also its member states. He never missed an opportunity to criticize Europe’s weaknesses in fighting terrorism and ISIS. In December 2015, in an attempt to defend his idea of blocking incoming Muslims to the United States, he claimed that some neighborhoods in Paris were “so dangerous that police refuse to go there”, because of islamic radicalization and violence. We can partly blame Fox News for this. But Trump wasn’t the only one to point fingers. In his turn, a year later, Macron was outspoken about Trump’s lack of understanding of the complexity of the world and was critical of his interpretations of America’s role within it. During a campaign speech in Quimper (France) on 16 January, he claimed: “Mister Trump, never forget what you owe us, your freedom, your existence. Mister Trump, look at your History, it is the one of Lafayette, it is our’s”. At the same time, he fished for Barack Obama’s support - one of Trump’s most natural opponents -, whom he managed to speak with on the phone on 20 April for a short “bromantic” conversation, as coined by Vox, and whose support for the candidate was made explicit on 4 May in a video, which of course went viral on social media.
So how come Macron and Trump are now being associated and perceived as keen to work together on key international issues? Why is Macron talking to Trump and vice versa? What makes the French president so interesting to the leader of the free world?
A game changer: the handshake
Their first encounter altered the situation. Remember their highly-publicized handshake in Brussels at the NATO summit on 25 May? The transatlantic relationship seemed to have been hanging to those five seconds. Macron called it a “moment of truth”, describing to the French weekly paper Journal du dimanche a Trump “more open than one may think”, “who likes direct contact and who is able to change positions”. He told the newspaper: “Given the way he works, I think I can build with him a cordial relationship”. Ever since, this idea of a “cordial” relation has remained Macron’s preferred phrase to describe their dynamic. It was used again just recently in a Der Spiegel interview, in which he insisted on promoting a pragmatic approach when dealing with America: “Trump is here, he is the head of a global power”. An idea which seems to imply that us Europeans just need to learn how to deal with him.
In this spirit, Macron has certainly tried hard to impress Trump and progressively gain his confidence, one may even say friendship. When Donald and Melania Trump visited Paris on 14 July to celebrate Bastille day, Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron hosted them for dinner at the Eiffel Tower, after the traditional parade, which took place on the Champs-Elysées. Trump made no secret of his enthusiasm for the celebration, which he eagerly described as “an incredible thing”. He has, since, pushed for organizing a similar “super-duper” parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington for 4 July of this year. No doubt Macron is proud of having generated such inspiration to the United States.
The reality: disagreements on files of utmost importance
It may be because crushes never last for long. Or because the aforementioned ideological differences render incompatible their approaches on important matters that affect the world order... in particular climate change and nuclear deterrence.
Their first argument occurred when Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement on 1 June. Macron reacted by frontally challenging his American alter ego, by diverting Trump’s campaign slogan: “Make our planet great again”. Macron’s team may be as fond of plays of words as I am, the truth is we haven’t seen the impact of this great communication effort. Sure - American scientific researchers were warmly invited to come to Paris, but it would be a calamity to launch such an initiative for the mere love of science.
Slightly later, Trump decided to opt for a hard line on North Korea and Iran, thus taking the unprecedented risk of triggering a war in these two countries. The French president showed willingness to use his influence to try to bring all players to reason. One would have a hard time imagining him tweeting hysterically about North Korea. On Iran, he embodies the European position that wants to maintain the nuclear agreement in place. Nevertheless, in both cases, Trump and Macron approached the files instrumentally: Trump wanted to strengthen his position on the domestic front; Macron used it as an opportunity to gain leadership on the European scene.
Such fundamental disagreements are far from trivial. How is it they still need each other?
An explanation: they may just like each other
Historians will tell you even Trump can’t escape path dependence and break with traditions inherently carried on by democratic institutions that are in place. As such, Europe will remain a key ally for the United States, as has been the case since Truman’s “containment”. From Truman to Trump - and in spite of the similarity between both names - the cycle just can’t be over yet, at least Macron certainly doesn’t want it to be. May it be that they just need to get along because Europe and America are supposed to be close partners?
This seems plausible. An alternative and fairly straightforward hypothesis would be to consider the possibility that Macron actually likes Trump. The magazine Foreign Policy asked the question bluntly. What if Macron was not just putting on a show for Donald Trump? Of course, the opposite could be true too: Trump could have successfully been seduced by Macron. Again, the handshake image has been an indicator of Macron’s attempt to make the best use of his seductive talents. Some excerpts from Trump’s interview with the Times on 19 July seem to confirm this: Macron’s “a great guy. (…) Smart. Strong. Loves holding my hand. (…) People don’t realize he loves holding my hand. And that’s good, as far as that goes. (…) I mean, really. He’s a very good person. And a tough guy, but look, he has to be. I think he is going to be a terrific president of France. But he does love holding my hand”.
The simplest explanation may be that they are both aware of the reality that they can’t go without each other. A close relationship increases their leverage in their respective countries. Macron craved for the leadership position in Europe (which he is slowly but surely securing, one media cover after another) and in order to do so he swiftly accepted the idea that he would need such recognition from abroad. For Trump, who was in the end given a lot of positive attention in an environment he perhaps initially perceived as hostile, proximity with Macron could in his eyes represent a real asset, to enhance his legitimacy as a presidential figure back home, given the French president’s popularity.
“I love you, you love me”
Is the who-likes-who-and-why narrative all important in the end? Not so much, if one focuses on the macrostructural realms that come into play in geopolitics. Yet at a time in which both France and the United States are trying to figure out who their respective leaders really are and what they represent, one may be tempted to say yes. After all, both political figures are at the center of the world’s attention and are perceived as individual incarnations of two different phenomena.
Six months in, the Macron era is being hailed for France’s comeback on the international scene. While this oversimplifies some of the decisions that were made prior to his arrival (such as the hosting in Paris of upcoming Olympic games in 2024 for instance, promoted and secured during the Hollande mandate), this perception is being widely shared around the world. In his own words, Macron is “Jupiterian”. But Trump may just be even more so, if we interpret his nationalistic sentiments and provocative unilateral actions as an appetite for limitless, God-like powers.
So both “Jupiters”, whose leadership is unquestionable, are obsessed with pushing their own agendas. Bearing in mind they are very aware of what they can gain from their respective alter ego across the Atlantic, the honeymoon may just last, not forever, but long enough for their improbable tandem to become the one of the decade to come. At this stage, all scenarios are possible: Trump could very well be reelected in 2020 and Macron could lose in 2022; vice versa, Macron could be reelected for a second mandate and Trump could disappear from US politics; both could be defeated; both could win. What we do know is that for the moment, they need each other. As long as this will be the case, the US president will let Macron take his hand and Macron will continue to bless America.