By Fabrice Pothier, IISS Consulting Senior Fellow for Defence Policy and Strategy
US President Donald J. Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron are worlds apart: one is an impulsive populist, the other a cerebral centrist. Yet in this case, opposites appear to attract. Macron in particular has made a point of building a relationship with his US counterpart despite Trump’s often disdainful attitude towards Europe. The question is whether Macron’s calculated embrace of Trump can deliver positive results for French and European interests. Macron’s state visit to the White House on 22 April could provide some answers.
There are some similarities between the two leaders’ political stories. Both reached the highest offices in their respective countries in 2017 despite having never held elected office before, and both succeeded by challenging established party lines. But the similarities end there. While Macron triumphed by carving out new centre ground, Trump won by energising a disgruntled and putatively marginalised base, shifting the Republican Party farther to the right. While many saw his election as the beginning of the end of the liberal order, Macron has been celebrated as the unexpected saviour of liberal values against a threatening wave of populism. It would have been politically expedient for Macron to highlight these differences and distance himself from Trump, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others did. But Macron opted for a more pragmatic approach that started with a now famous handshake on the sidelines of the NATO summit in July 2017. This was followed by Macron’s surprising invitation to Trump to attend French National Day ceremonies in Paris on 14 July. Although granting Trump the international recognition he both craved and lacked was politically risky, Macron also put France and himself in the global spotlight, showcasing the grandeur of the French Republic.
Macron also had a geopolitical angle. Germany was heading for elections at the time, with German public opinion about Trump among the most negative in Europe. The United Kingdom, customarily the United States’ strongest European ally, was engulfed in difficult and distracting Brexit negotiations, and buffeted by Trump’s insulting and poorly informed comments on British domestic affairs. For the first time in decades, the field was clear for France to present itself as the United States’ go-to partner in Europe. Having served under the previous government, Macron was well aware of the depth of the military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries. Senior French military officers like to boast that the true special relationship is now Franco-American, especially in the Sahel and in the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). With UK forces and capabilities diminishing, the Franco-American security relationship has rarely looked stronger.
Leveraging that relationship also fits into Macron’s broader historic vision. Like some of his predecessors, starting with Charles de Gaulle, Macron wants to restore France’s position as a pivotal power. His first bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Palace of Versailles signalled this intention. Although Macron delivered some warnings, especially about Moscow-sponsored media outlets, according to senior officials he also tried to find some points of cooperation with Putin, particularly on the Syrian conflict. Overall, in the space of a few months, Macron has succeeded in reinvigorating France’s central role as a world power.
Any Macron–Trump agenda would be loaded with fraught issues. Of these, global climate change is by far the most divisive. According to Macron, environmental policy is not a mere addendum to a government’s programme: in his pre-campaign essay ‘Revolution’, he stated that addressing the effects of climate change should be part of all government policies, including those on technological innovation and economic growth. The 2016 Paris climate agreement was the first instance since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol in which leading world carbon emitters, China and the United States in particular, could agree on emissions-curbing targets. The Paris accord closed a difficult decade of failed attempts to build a succeeding framework to the Kyoto accord, which the United States had never ratified. Key to the Paris agreement’s success was a new US–China entente on climate change, which the Obama administration had patiently forged. Since the Paris agreement was one of the few major policy successes of François Hollande’s presidency, Macron was keen to build on it.
Beyond his substantive conviction that climate change is one of the greatest contemporary threats to human welfare, Macron also saw an opportunity to place France in a leading role on a global issue. Yet he also wanted to avoid a head-on collision with his US counterpart, who has repeatedly expressed deep scepticism about the scientific veracity of climate change, and has made a point of dismantling the Obama administration’s domestic and international environmental policy. In particular, he has withdrawn the United States from the Paris agreement. Macron’s approach has been to openly criticise that US decision – sometimes sardonically, by echoing Trump’s signature slogan ‘Make American Great Again’ in his own call to ‘Make the Planet Great Again’ – while also maintaining a dialogue with Trump on the need to fight climate change even if there is little chance this fight will succeed.
The same can be said for another difficult issue: the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). During his campaign, Trump repeatedly characterised the JCPOA as the worst deal in history, something he has continued to do in office. This opprobrium evidently has more to do with politically undermining his predecessor’s legacy than with the actual effectiveness of the deal, as most experts, including many within the Trump administration’s own Defense and State departments, believe that the deal is working. While the White House has not yet crossed the line of disavowing the deal, the president appears determined to do so, having just appointed two key officials – Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser – who oppose the JCPOA. Trump has already declined to recertify the deal once, asking Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran. This prompted a strong adverse response from his European counterparts, including Macron. The Europeans’ chief concern is that a US exit from the JCPOA would provide Iran’s hardliners with leverage for marginalising the country’s reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, who supports the deal; and with a pretext for stirring up nationalist sentiment in the midst of a crucial religious-leadership transition in Iran. They fear that such developments could trigger a nuclear arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
According to French officials, Paris is trying to convince the Trump administration not to withdraw from the agreement by finding ways to address the White House’s concerns about Tehran’s ballistic-missile programme and aggressive posture in the region – concerns which many senior French officials have long shared. Dialogue is ongoing, but the prospect of Macron’s prevailing remains dim. Thus far, the US administration has failed to define a coherent strategy for the wider Middle East. Despite its hawkish tone, especially on Iran, it has remained unwilling to commit the military and diplomatic resources necessary to change the balance of power in the region, maintaining only a minimum presence in conflicts, such as the war in Syria, in which Iran is playing a critical role. The looming summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in May could strengthen Macron’s hand in moderating Trump’s position. Even the Iran hawks within the US administration may realise that repudiating a nuclear agreement on the eve of a ‘denuclearisation’ summit would damage Washington’s credibility with Pyongyang. Accordingly, Macron is likely to urge Trump to extend the US waiver on Iran sanctions – a key part of the JCPOA – on or before the 12 May deadline for doing so when he visits Washington later this month.
There are several issues on which Macron and Trump share some common ground. Chief among these is their focus on countering terrorism. American and French military and intelligence personnel have cultivated very close cooperation. In the Sahel region, where thousands of French forces have been stretched thin since the launch of Operation Serval in Mali in 2012, the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK are providing critical support to French forces, including intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities and strategic airlift, which the French army sorely lacks. In turn, French fighter jets and special-operations forces are deployed in support of the US-led coalition against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. From a homeland-security standpoint, France and other European countries are directly exposed to terrorist groups operating in the Middle East, while the United States enjoys geographical protection; yet European powers alone cannot lead a region-wide counter-terrorism campaign without US support.
As the counter-terrorism effort in Iraq and Syria is wound down, however, Paris is becoming concerned that the Trump administration might disengage more widely from the region, including Syria. This would be consistent with the US president’s stated distaste for extensive foreign interventions, and his preference for insulating America from regional conflicts. It would also be in line with his decision to devote more resources to Afghanistan, and his assertion in a 29 March speech that the United States would withdraw from Syria ‘very soon’. Broader opposition to an abrupt US pullback in the Middle East within the US government, and the Assad regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons in Douma on 8 April are, however, likely to impede any quick American withdrawal from the region.
Macron himself claimed on French television that Trump had reconsidered his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria thanks to France’s stubborn diplomacy. Macron added that he had tempered American plans to strike Syria in retaliation for the attack on Douma by convincing Trump to focus on a few critical sites. Only time and continuous pressure will tell if the joint American–British–French strikes have restored deterrence and drawn a red line. But it is clear that Macron’s France played a driving role in launching the strikes. While the UK government only explicitly joined the mini coalition late in the planning process, Macron was apparently the one who made the call to Putin to warn him about the strikes. Again, by embracing Trump, Macron is not only trying to ensure that the United States stays involved in the Middle East, but is placing France in a pivotal role. While this is unlikely to be enough to spur the development of a coherent American strategy on conflicts such as Syria, Macron’s efforts to channel some of the US administration’s instincts has still been worthwhile.
The two presidents have some improbable points of convergence on international trade. Like other EU leaders, Macron was unequivocal in rejecting US ‘blackmail’ after Trump threatened to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium. But Washington and Paris are broadly in agreement about Chinese trade practices. Macron’s repeated call for reciprocity and fairness during his visit to China was essentially a subtle concurrence with Trump’s more accusatory rhetoric about Beijing’s abuse of global trade. Like the US, France faces a large structural trade deficit – some €62 billion in 2017. While Macron understands that the deficit is largely due to an uncompetitive French industrial sector, he has also joined those in the EU calling for fairer trade arrangements. In fact, at his first European Council meeting as French president in June 2017, Macron proposed a new EU screening mechanism for foreign investment to better control Chinese investments in Europe’s strategic sectors. This would emulate the United States’ advanced screening procedure under the inter-agency Committee on Foreign Investment.
There are more issues that divide Trump and Macron than bring them together. Yet even on the most divisive subjects, such as climate change, Macron has already earned some political dividends by continuing a dialogue with the US president. At the very least, a French demonstration of resolve not to let the United States off the hook could encourage US states and cities to continue their efforts to curb emissions pending Trump’s departure from office. On the issues that bring the two leaders together, Macron’s goal is to secure the United States’ ongoing counter-terrorism support in North Africa and the Sahel, and to harness Trump’s preoccupation with reducing the US trade deficit to France’s benefit in substantially curbing China’s trade-distorting practices, which France and the EU probably cannot do without American help.
Overall, Macron’s embrace of Trump is probably more about damage limitation than carving out an affirmative agenda. Although the French public is broadly critical of Trump and US policy, Macron’s nurturing of a good relationship with the American president has yielded the symbolic benefit of positioning France at the centre of world affairs, and the substantive benefit of providing a potential check on US policies adverse to French and European interests. As a student and assistant of the late French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Macron appreciates the value of maintaining constructive tension between two opposites.