Trump and Macron: a key test for an unlikely alliance

The French president has worked hard to cultivate his US counterpart, but Iran will show how much influence he really has

US president Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands at the US ambassador’s residence in Brussels in May 2017. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

US president Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands at the US ambassador’s residence in Brussels in May 2017. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

 

It’s one of the most unlikely pairings in world politics: on one side, the brash septuagenarian demagogue whose populist instincts are matched only by his ignorance of the world around him; on the other, the youthful, cosmopolitan technocrat who has become a torch-bearer for multilateralism and liberal centrism. For all their differences, however, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump have managed to strike a working relationship that few would have thought possible. Their partnership will be on full display in the coming days, when the French head of state pays a three-day state visit to Washington – the first Trump has hosted as president.

Conscious of the strategic importance of his country’s alliance with the US, and knowing that a close relationship with Trump strengthens his own influence, Macron has worked hard to cultivate the US president. Almost alone among world leaders, he has been able to take issue publicly with Trump’s actions (on climate change and policy-making via social media, for example) without once earning an angry rebuke.

Macron claims credit for persuading Trump not to initiate a sudden withdrawal of American troops from  Syria. The real test of his influence will be Iran, however

Macron received Trump with great pomp at the Bastille Day celebrations last year, and the two co-ordinated closely before their joint military intervention against the Syrian government earlier this month. The UK also took part in that assault, but although Theresa May’s politics are closer to Trump’s, the two leaders have a distant relationship. The same goes for Trump and Angela Merkel. In Macron, Trump seems to recognise a fellow outsider – a man who broke France’s political duopoly and has shown himself capable of winning against the odds. The result is that, these days, when the White House wants to call Europe, it calls the Élysée Palace.

Macron’s approach carries real risks. By aligning himself with a man who shows contempt for democratic norms, the French president is in danger of legitimising his excesses – particularly given the limited evidence that he is capable of changing Trump’s mind. Macron’s pleadings over the Paris climate deal did not dissuade Trump from abandoning it. Nor did Trump heed Macron’s advice when he announced new trade tariffs and recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Yet America’s allies have a responsibility to use what influence they possess to try to moderate his behaviour. Macron claims credit for persuading Trump not to initiate a sudden withdrawal of American troops from Syria. The real test of his influence will be Iran, however. Trump must decide by May 12th whether to renew or abandon the nuclear deal. All the indications suggest he wants to kill it – a move that would probably lead Iran to kick out inspectors and restart its uranium enrichment. France and other US allies have been working on a compromise they hope will meet Trump’s concerns. If that works, it will rank among Macron’s biggest achievements.

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