PARIS—President Donald J. Trump arrived in Europe on Thursday for the second time in less than a week, having accepted a rare outstretched hand from a leader on the continent, where he is deeply unpopular.
The invitation by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, might not only give Trump a brief respite from his domestic political woes, but also establish Macron’s standing as Trump’s primary point of contact in Western Europe.
It is a position Macron appears to have fallen into almost by default, as the British focus on their exit from the European Union; Germany’s chancellor expresses open disdain for Trump; and the southern Europeans remain in perennial fiscal difficulty. But it is also a role that Macron has assumed with relish: The whiz kid of French politics has a seemingly limitless confidence in his capacity for seduction.
How the relationship will work with Trump remains to be seen. The invitation by Macron, at 39 France’s youngest president in modern times, to Trump, 71, the oldest person ever elected to the White House, is consistent with Macron’s developing hard-nosed pragmatism in global affairs.
It is, however, an unlikely partnership, given Trump’s professed admiration for Marine Le Pen, the far-right populist Macron defeated in the May 7 election, and the gulf between Macron’s technocratic, pro-European and youth-oriented approach and Trump’s nationalistic, America-first message.
On Syria, Macron has renounced the demise of President Bashar al-Assad as a precondition of peace talks. He invited Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, to a meeting in France, where he challenged Putin with tough words on Syria and on gay rights. On Africa, he gave a sober—if impolitic—warning about high birthrates.
Macron’s aides believe that working with America is inevitable and indispensable and that, for better or worse, it must be done through the current president.
The French president has already taken a softer line toward Trump than some of his European counterparts, notably Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.
His early hopes that Trump might adopt Europe’s position on climate change were dashed when Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate accord, which the French consider a preeminent diplomatic achievement.
Macron responded with a semi-mocking speech in English, promising to “Make Our Planet Great Again”, and reiterated an ironic invitation to US scientists “fighting obscurantism”, as he put it during his campaign, to come to France.
Yet not long after, Macron’s Spokesman, Christophe Castaner emphasized the importance of not isolating Trump, of “bringing the president of the United States back into the circle”. Already that attitude has some French commentators accepting the idea that Macron “has become the privileged interlocutor” of Trump in Europe, said Nicolas Tenzer, who teaches at Sciences Po, a leading university for political science, and who heads a think tank here.
And this, in spite of the vast ideological and political gulf between the two. “In the Trump-Macron relationship, opposites attract,” said Denis Lacorne, a leading French specialist on America. “Macron has positions much closer to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He’s a pluralist. He’s got a world vision that’s exactly the opposite of Trump’s.”
The America that fascinates Macron—Silicon Valley and the culture of start-ups—is not Trump’s America, but Macron, a former investment banker, is a pragmatist, not an ideologue.
“The English are bogged down in Brexit, and” Trump’s “relations with Merkel are a disaster”, Tenzer explained. Has Macron gained that position in regard to the US leader “by his own will, or is it simply by default?” Lacorne asked.
“I think with Macron, there is a capacity to decide and react very quickly,” Lacorne said.
He noted the French president had moved fast to fill the perceived Anglo-German void, even if it was too soon to declare a renaissance in the relationship between France and America, one of the world’s oldest geopolitical alliances.
Delphine Allès, who teaches international relations at the Université Paris-Est Créteil, called the prospect of a Trump-Macron partnership “very paradoxical, in that their visions of the world are completely opposite.”
She added, however, that “beyond their fundamental disagreements there may be a convergence in their will to present themselves as pragmatists, as deal-makers.”