France’s Emmanuel Macron lands in Washington Monday with a mission to take the edge off Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, for Europe at least.
As Macron arrives for the first state visit of Trump’s presidency, the U.S. leader is threatening to upend the global trading system with tariffs on China, maybe Europe too, and to ditch the Iran nuclear accord, a key plank of western policy for containing military tensions in the Middle East.
The French president has had more success in striking up a rapport with Trump than most global leaders but his record of securing policy concessions is patchy all the same. While Macron pointed to this month’s missile strikes against Syria as a victory for French diplomacy, he failed to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate accord and his aides last week played down expectations that he might persuade Trump to change course on other issues.
“This visit will promote the narrative that the two men have a good relationship, but it may not make much of a difference,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “A personal relationship is great, but Trump doesn’t remember it once you’ve left the room.”
On the first night, the two leaders will have dinner with their wives at George Washington’s Virginia estate in Mount Vernon, overlooking the Potomac river and Macron will offer his host a symbolic gift. On a January visit to Beijing, he gave President Xi Jinping a horse from the French Republican Guard.
Tuesday night is the state dinner at the White House where Brigitte Macron may wear a Louis Vuitton gown, her designer of choice. The rest of the guest list has been closely guarded so far, though LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault may make the cut as the only French business leader to have shaken Trump’s hand. On the final day of his trip Macron will address a joint session of Congress — in English — and meet students at the George Washington University.
“He has been one of the few Europeans who has pulled off the trick of building a close and strong working relationship with President Trump while also not shying away from criticism,” said Jeff Rathke, deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We’ll probably see some of that.”
Macron’s chance to turn the bonhomie into policy substance comes during extended talks on Tuesday.
French officials say they’ve been briefed by their White House counterparts that Trump still hasn’t decided whether he’ll stick with the Iran deal. The agreement was the signature foreign-policy achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency and perhaps the most intense U.S. diplomatic push since the aftermath of World War I.
The president has been a longstanding critic of the accord. He wants more action to stop Iran’s developing its ballistic missile program and expanding its influence in the Middle East — issues that aren’t covered in the current agreement. Macron plans to offer additional commitments from European nations to guarantee that the deal will keep Iran in check.
“The French president will have prepared a few ‘fixes’ to the Iran deal, climate accord, and trade issues to deliver Trump something he thinks is a win,” said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official under Obama. “Macron has mastered the art of the deal when it comes to Trump – forget about the substance, focus on his feelings, furnishing him with flattery and a touch of French flair.”
Trump’s experience sending his forces into combat alongside their French allies this month may strengthen Macron’s chances of making progress on other issues, analysts said.
The 40-year-old French president has established himself as Trump’s go-to leader in Europe and his position at the head of the EU’s foremost military power gives him an advantage over Angela Merkel, who is derided by the Trump administration for Germany’s reluctance to join military action and its lack of defense spending and harangued over Germany’s massive trade surplus with the U.S.
“This is clearly a country that is ready to take risks and to work with the United States and that gains France respect in Washington,” said Rathke.
Read more about Trump’s relationship with Macron here
Trade will be Macron’s other challenge. He was in Berlin Thursday to coordinate his arguments with Merkel — the German leader visits the White House on Friday.
Trump wants the Europeans to ease the barriers to U.S. exporters seeking access to their markets. Macron and Merkel will both argue that unilateral moves on trade policy are destructive as they try to persuade Trump not to sabotage the World Trade Organization’s rules-based trading system.
“They both have an interest in defending a European position in face of China or the U.S.,” said Jean Pisani-Ferry, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, who advised Macron during the campaign. “Their two countries’ economies are so integrated.”
— With assistance by Toluse Olorunnipa, and Jonathan Tirone