July 13, 2017
Press coverage of the first meeting between US President Donald J. Trump and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, at the NATO summit in Brussels in May focused on the spirited handshake Macron gave Trump.  But too much emphasis on the symbolism of Macron’s machismo overlooked the fact that while Trump did not enjoy being upstaged, he also respects Macron as a strong leader. This has played an important role in the developing bonds between the two leaders.

The foundation for this new friendship, that has also been overlooked by many analysts, has been carefully laid by both leaders since their first meeting in phone calls and discussions between them and their advisors, and especially by Macron’s courting of Trump and comments from US officials that emphasized France’s importance militarily within Europe and NATO.

Macron’s invitation to Trump to celebrate Bastille Day in Paris, which one would normally expect a French leader to extend to their German counterpart, helped further cement their budding ties and has created the potential for what is likely to be one of the key relationships in international affairs.

In fact, Macron has quickly emerged as Trump’s closest partner in Europe after just four meetings in part because of the void in US relations with Europe’s two other leading powers.

First, there is the rocky relationship Trump has with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which began with awkward body language and disagreements on trade issues during their first meeting at the White House on March 17 and then deteriorated further after Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement on June 1. Merkel is also intentionally distancing herself from Trump because that plays well in Germany, where she faces an election in September.

Second, British Prime Minister Theresa May would in theory be Trump’s closest ally in Europe, but she is preoccupied with the United Kingdom’s negotiations to leave the European Union (EU) and with her own weakened political situation after the June election that left her Conservative Party with fewer seats in Parliament.

The basis for the close ties developing between Macron and Trump is in part the similarities in their backgrounds and personalities and their shared policy agenda. Where Trump is said to have monarchical or authoritarian tendencies according to some US critics, “Emmanuel Macron has chosen as his model none other than Jupiter, king of the gods,” in the view of French writer and former Le Monde editor Sylvie Kauffmann.

Macron and Trump are both alpha males with dominant personalities and an abundance of self-confidence; both are new to politics (though in Macron’s case not new to policy); and both want to disrupt major aspects of how their country’s society is organized.  For example, Macron and Trump want to reduce government regulation and the role of government. In their joint statement and brief press conference in Paris on July 13, Trump praised Macron’s plans to reduce the size of the French bureaucracy.

Another similarity between the two leaders is that while Macron was a banker rather than a businessman per se, he is a firm believer in entrepreneurship, which he wants to encourage in France. There are also similarities when it comes to dealing with the mainstream press since Macron, like Trump, is aggressively pursuing leakers and has criticized the press in his own country, which is one of Trump’s signature moves. 

As for their policy agenda, the two leaders have decided to look past their differences on globalization, trade, and the environment. They are united through France’s major role in the US campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other terrorist groups in the Middle East, West Africa, the Sahel, and elsewhere, and have a common position on ending the war in Syria while allowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in office.

The warm chemistry and body language between Trump and Macron following their two-hour meeting on July 13 marked a very strong contrast with Trump’s previous interactions with other European leaders at the NATO, Group of 7, and G20 meetings.

Trump went out of his way to graciously thank Macron for inviting him to Paris, praised the French leader for his country’s important efforts on counterterrorism, and emphasized the historic bonds between the countries—from French support for US independence to the bravery of French soldiers in World War I.  Trump also commented on what he called “the very good relationship and friendship” between the two countries and two leaders, which he said are “together more than ever.”

Emphasizing the positive elements of their relationship clearly serves the interests of both leaders.  For Trump, having good ties with France diminishes his international isolation and may reduce his unpopularity overseas as well.  It should also help him garner more positive coverage of his foreign policy that moves beyond the focus on recent strains with his European and NATO allies.

For Macron, the relationship with Trump helps strengthen the domestic and international standing of someone who has never before held elected office and is now the darling of European politics. It even casts him in the role of Europe’s military leader since once the UK exits the EU, France will be Europe’s largest and only nuclear military power.

The new friendship between these two leaders will probably be tested by some future crisis or major policy dispute and remains a “work in progress,” as Sylvie Kauffmann said in the New York Times on July 12.  But it also appears to have solid prospects since both leaders appear committed to building stronger ties. 

Louis Golino, an independent writer, is retired from the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service where he worked on NATO and EU issues, including advising the US Senate on NATO enlargement during the 1990s.

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