The Budding Bromance Between Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron

U.S. President Donald Trump looks at French President Emmanuel Macron before a family photo at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A Franco-American axis?

Donald Trump and his entourage touched down in Paris Thursday morning, on the invitation of French president Emmanuel Macron, to attend Bastille Day celebrations the following day. At first glance, the two are seemingly near opposites, but recent developments bely a chummier relationship than observers had originally expected. Macron appears on the verge of becoming Trump’s number one international buddy.

Initially, the invitation to the U.S. president to attend the French national day struck many as another trollish publicity stunt by Macron, the occupant of Elysée Palace who once locked Trump in a death-grip handshake. A May survey found over 80 percent of Frenchmen disapprove of the New York business mogul. And the Washington Post pointed out Wednesday that Trump has a long recent history of rebarbative remarks about Paris (complete with references to a presidential friend, “Jim,” who may or may not actually exist).

“Trump’s visit . . . has stirred some controversies in France. The American president has a terrible reputation here, to say the least,” says Cecile Alduy of Stanford. “In France, Donald Trump is the most unpopular U.S. president ever and hosting him on such a symbolic day exposes the French president to savage criticism,” adds Vincent Michelot of Sciences Po.

But Trump has shrewdly counter-trolled, actually accepting Macron’s offer. "President Trump looks forward to reaffirming America's strong ties . . . and to commemorating the 100th anniversary of America's entry into World War I,” the White House said in a statement late last month. Michelot argues it would have been a scandal if Trump hadn’t gone this year: “not having a high-level U.S. presence at the July 14 military march as we celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the U.S. entering World War I would have sent a disastrous signal.”

And from the administration’s perspective, it also likely doesn’t hurt to get Trump out of Washington, as this week saw more concerning revelations of connections between his apparatus and Moscow. “When scandal takes hold, presidents usually look for opportunities to demonstrate they aren't prisoners in the White House,” says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. “There's nothing more presidential than foreign affairs and travel. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton all used international forums while under the weight of scandals.”

But spurring further intrigue, there are signs that Trump, the nationalist populist gadfly of the international scene, and Macron, the cosmopolitan champion of the European Union and liberal democracy, might actually be getting along. A senior administration official emphasized to reporters in Washington on Tuesday the number of times the two have spoken since Macron’s election victory in April, actually allowing the two to forgo a formal sit-down at last week’s G-20 gathering—since they have already built such a familiarity. The White House repeatedly characterized the early goings in the relationship as immensely encouraging, and there are signs this might be more than just puffery from team Trump. Macron’s outsized popularity in France and internationally also might be giving him more leeway than most leaders in dealing with the U.S. president, who has achieved pariah status in western Europe.

By way of example, the British parliament has tediously debated whether Trump should be allowed to visit the country for over a year, even when he was just a candidate. Macron decided he should come to Paris by swift fiat, and the U.S. president will visit Elysée and eat blue lobster in the Eiffel Tower. “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 has told LCI, a French news channel. “Macron is symbolically offering Trump his hand.”