In a summer of buddy movies starring major world leaders, theirs was the flick most likely to tank. But President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron have just shared a whirlwind 24-hour love fest in Paris, and the buzz of their ardor and flesh-pressing intimacy has the world reassessing not just the visuals of their relationship but something much more profound.
Emmanuel Macron has now just successfully positioned himself as Western Europe’s closest American ally, while the rest of Europe’s leaders remain stymied on how to engage with an “America first” isolationist president.
You might call it a tale of two handshakes.
The two leaders first met in Taormina, Sicily, during the G7 summit in May. There, Macron kept a white-knuckled grip on Trump’s hand for much longer than was necessary, a show of aggressive masculinity. Their smiles were forced, neither wanting to release. Later, Macron would tell the French press it was a purposeful pissing match: “My handshake with him — it wasn’t innocent,” he disclosed to the Journal du Dimanche. “It was a moment of truth.”
“That’s how you ensure you are respected,” he explained. “You have to show you won’t make small concessions — not even symbolic ones.”
Contrast that with today’s even longer and creepier handshake between the two men on the Champs-Élysées in central Paris as the Bastille Day parade swirled behind them. This hand-and-arm grab took place while Trump’s motorcade waited, ready to whisk the first couple back to Air Force One. It went on for a full 25 seconds. And this time it was not an arm wrestle but a long, drawn-out, wistful refusal to say goodbye.
It’s really worth watching:
It’s clear now why Macron invited Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in France. He has successfully managed to get the ear, and perhaps the heart, of the famously boorish, thin-skinned Trump by appealing to Trump’s love of ceremony, and by abruptly flipping the switch from cold to warm on Franco-American relations. For Trump, all but completely shunned at the G20 summit in Hamburg over his position on climate change, it was surely a welcome adjustment.
Macron maintained that the overtures were genuine. Asked during their joint press conference about the dinner planned for the Trumps at Jules Verne, the Eiffel Tower’s sky-high restaurant, Macron insisted, “It will be a dinner between friends, because we are the representatives of two countries which have been allies forever and because we've been able to build a strong relation which is dear to me, because it matters a great deal for both countries.”
“I think it is a brilliant coup from Macron who is now Trump's ‘new friend,’ and has put France at the core of Europe's leadership,” said Philippe Le Corre, a visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, in an email. Even better for Macron than just the optics, Gordon noted, was the domestic approval that came with it: According to a recent poll by the French television station BFMTV, 59 percent of the French supported Macron’s Trump outreach efforts.
Alpha males and their lady friends
The Macron about-face on Trump is a “classic alpha male strategy,” Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “First, establish dominance. Second, from a position of strength, reach out a hand of magnanimous friendship.”
Macron asserted his position of strength early. The newly elected French president took to Twitter on June 1 to counter Trump the moment he announced he was taking the United States out of the Paris climate accord. Macron immediately launched a cheekily titled “Make Our Planet Great Again” campaign in which he invited American scientists, innovators, and entrepreneurs to move to France and bring their talent and ideas with them.
So there was much surprise some weeks later when the French leader officially invited Trump to celebrate Bastille Day in Paris, and Trump, in turn, accepted. After all, just last week Macron announced he would be holding yet another climate conference, in December.
In retrospect, the invitation was nothing less than inspired. Trump, it is well known, loves a parade. He deeply enjoys military pomp and circumstance, and was reportedly disgruntled to learn he couldn’t add more military honors to his own Inauguration Day festivities.
Being in Paris on Bastille Day, especially on the 100th anniversary of the US involvement in World War I, offered Trump all of his favorite things: Military parade? Check. A nostalgic recollection of a bygone era of righteous American military strength? Check. A warm look back at a time of harmonious friendship between the two countries? Double check.
Macron has clearly noticed that Trump enjoys flattery. He received Trump warmly, took him on a tour through Napoleon’s tomb, and offered up a Disney-perfect version of Paris — including an Eiffel Tower dinner party. In so doing, he enticed Trump to fall in love with Paris. That’s no small thing given that Paris was a city the president has long loved to bash. On the campaign trail, he insisted “Paris was no longer Paris” anymore (due to terror and an influx of outsiders). And when he bowed out of the climate accords, Trump boasted he had been elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.
Macron even got Trump to soften, ever so slightly, on his mulish climate position. “Something could happen with respect to the Paris accord; we’ll see what happens,” Trump said during Thursday’s joint press conference with Macron.
Macron is not just doing this to make a new friend. He wants Trump — and the US — to play a bigger role in the global response to challenges such as climate change, terrorism, and conflicts in places like Syria.
“Macron is a realist,” said Martin Michelot of the German Marshall Fund. “He doesn’t want to see an isolated America because he then thinks it will defend its interests more aggressively, which will probably be bad for international cooperation in a lot of fields.”
Part of that realism has been to cast a calculated eye to the rest of the European board in play. Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel is distracted by the coming German federal elections in September, not to mention what appears to be a distinct distaste for Trump, and Theresa May is caught up in the headaches of Brexit. Macron, on the other hand, is fresh to the stage in both France and the world. Becoming a conduit to Trump is a savvy play.
“Macron seems to have an ‘in’ with Trump that Merkel doesn’t,” said Michelot. “So it seems Macron is leveraging his good relationship with Trump to also act as a spokesperson for Europe.”
Macron may be new to politics, but he’s certainly no amateur when it comes to the delicate nuances of handling the American president.