President Donald Trump’s relationship with Emmanuel Macron was off to an awkward start, with a jaw-clenching handshake at a summit in Brussels before the French president rebuked the US leader for his stance on climate change.
The two men would appear to have little in common. Mr Trump, 71, is an anti-globalist elected on a pledge to “make America great again” who is unpredictable on foreign policy. Mr Macron, 39, is an ardent European integrationist more than three decades younger who sees himself as an honest broker of international relations.
Mr Trump’s visit to Paris this week, to celebrate 100 years since US troops entered World War I on the side of France and Britain, follows bruising talks on trade and climate policy that pitted him against leaders from the world’s major economies at a G20 summit last weekend.
In Paris, Mr Trump will seek common ground on diplomatic and military endeavours. Both he and Mr Macron have a political interest in building rapport, and both have a corporate background that may help underpin their relationship.
Mr Trump could use a friend overseas. His preference for a more unilateral, transactional diplomacy has unsettled traditional allies in Europe and left the US president appearing isolated among world leaders.
“Sometimes Trump makes decisions we don’t like, such as on climate, but we can deal with it in two ways: we can say, ‘We are not going to talk to you’, or we can offer you our hand to bring you back into the circle,” government spokesman Christophe Castaner told French news channel LCI. “Macron is symbolically offering Trump his hand.”
Mr Trump and Mr Macron are political outsiders, the American a real estate mogul, his French counterpart a former investment banker. Both love a good deal, demand tangible results rather than lofty ambitions and have a penchant for showmanship.
Like Mr Macron, Mr Trump will be looking for common ground.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One returning from the G20 meeting in the German city of Hamburg, Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council, said Mr Trump and Mr Macron enjoyed a “great” relationship.
“You know, Macron and the president have somewhat different views on how to achieve the end goal, but I think the end goal is the same,” Mr Cohn said.
Mr Trump announced in June that the United States would pull out of a landmark international accord reached in Paris in 2015 to fight climate change. In hard-fought negotiations in Germany, Mr Macron tried to soften US language on climate policy.
Mr Cohn played down talk of tensions with Mr Macron over climate policy. He said he expected meetings in Paris on military and security matters as well as “a long bilateral meeting between the two men”.
Having reshaped their countries’ political landscapes, both now have certain shared objectives, making crushing Islamic State and countering global terrorism a leading priority.
It is unclear whether the leaders will address thornier issues such as policy toward Iran, possible American tariffs on steel and Russia sanctions legislation in the US Congress that might derail a 9.5 billion euro ($10.9 billion) gas pipe project in which France’s Engie SA has a stake.
The United States and France hold differing views on Iran.
On a visit to Saudi Arabia in May, Mr Trump singled out Iran as a key source of funding and support for militant groups. During the US presidential race, he threatened to tear up an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, branding it “the worst deal ever negotiated”.
So far Mr Trump has stopped short of killing an accord that has allowed French companies including planemaker Airbus SE, oil major Total SA and car manufacturers Peugeot SA and Renault SA to sign initial deals.
Just as Mr Macron flattered Russian President Vladimir Putin with a meeting at the gilded Versailles palace of France’s former monarchy, Mr Trump will bask in a Bastille Day ceremony today laden with pageantry and military pomp, with US soldiers parading down the Champs Elysees.
For Mr Macron, France’s youngest leader since Napoleon two centuries ago, it is an opportunity to use soft diplomacy to win Mr Trump’s confidence and set about influencing US foreign policy at a time European diplomats say Washington lacks direction.
“The visit is a win-win for both,” said one French diplomat. “Trump remains unchallenged and gets the grandeur that he enjoys. Macron remains unchallenged and gets a no-fuss picture with the leader of the ‘free world’.”
Mr Macron is concerned about Mr Trump feeling backed into a corner, French diplomats said. Moreover, he senses an opportunity to sway US thinking and elevate the role of France, a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, in global affairs, in particular on Syria and the Middle East, they added.
France is the second-biggest contributor to the US-led coalition in Syria, and French officials have expressed fears that the United States has no clear vision beyond taking the military fight to Islamic State.
It is one reason, the diplomats say, that in his first two months as president, Mr Macron has sought warmer ties with the Kremlin, just as Mr Trump is left hamstrung in his relations with Moscow by allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election to help Mr Trump win and possible collusion with Russia by people close to him.
“The Russians are pleased to have a grown-up to talk to in Europe,” a second French diplomat said.
Daniel Fried, an expert on US-European relations who served under presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said Mr Trump had nothing to gain politically at home or abroad by isolating himself.
“By reaching out to the French I suspect he hopes to show he can be a viable actor on the world stage.” Reuters