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Iran, trade, climate: What's at stake on Macron's visit to Washington

Win McNamee/Getty Images North America/AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron and First Lady Brigitte Macron arrive in Washington on April 23.
Text by: Yona HELAOUA
7 min

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived Monday in Washington for a state visit aimed at cementing ties with the United States and convincing President Donald Trump to see France's side when it comes to key issues regarding international affairs.


Impressed by the warm welcome he received for the Bastille Day ceremony last July in Paris, the US president has returned the favour by making Emmanuel Macron the first foreign leader of the Trump era to receive a state visit – a prestigious honour that speaks volumes in the world of diplomacy.

Trump has invited his counterpart to Mount Vernon, the former residence of the first US president, for what the White House called a “private couples dinner” on Monday evening along with first ladies Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron. The choice of Mount Vernon is highly symbolic for the Franco-American relationship: It was there that the Marquis de Lafayette (one of the eight honourary citizens of the United States) used to visit his friend George Washington, who is buried at his erstwhile home. In 1790, Lafayette gave Washington the key to the Bastille as a symbol of their friendship, and it can still be seen by visitors to Mount Vernon today.

The Élysée presidential palace said it honours the close relationship between the two presidents and that this visit offers an opportunity to foster that spirit of reconciliation.

“The Franco-American relationship is cyclical,” explains Célia Belin, a political science analyst and researcher on transatlantic relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “There are moments of very strong agreement and understanding between the two countries. But there are other moments when it does not go as well, such as in 2003 with the dispute about the Iraq War. At this moment, we are, in a way, at the peak of the Franco-American relationship.”

Belin also notes that the two leaders speak very often by telephone.

“Approximately once a week; while we know that, for example, Donald Trump has not talked to Angela Merkel for more than five months.”

Belin notes the two men have a similar history in that they were both considered political long shots. “Although there are many differences between these two men – one is a great intellectual, pro-European and liberal, the other is a businessman, nationalist and protectionist – they share a bit of the same political background, which explains their rapport. Both overthrew the political elite of their countries and managed to achieve power when nobody initially thought they stood a chance."

Macron's Washington visit crucial to France-US relations

Military alliance

Another factor might help to explain their close ties. “France has become a key player on a large number of important issues for the United States and vice-versa: Iran, Syria, climate change, China, Russia...” explains Belin. All of these issues will be on the agenda when the two presidents sit down for talks, the Élysée has said.

France is particularly aligned with the US in military matters, especially since the Mali intervention under François Hollande’s presidency. The most recent example of military cooperation were the strikes carried out against suspected chemical facilities in Syria on April 14.

“On defence issues, France is the main US ally [in Europe] today,” says Belin. “For a long time, this close allegiance was with the British, who today have collapsed in on themselves because of Brexit. Now the French have demonstrated their willingness to share the burden of the fight against terrorism. It is an image of France that has developed as a result of the interventions in Mali, but also in Iraq and, more recently, in Syria."

She added: "At a time when Trump is enormously critical of Europeans because they do not invest enough in defence, France does the opposite.”

During Macron’s stay there will be several events to highlight their shared military history. Macron will visit Arlington National Cemetery on April 24 and will lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Macron will also decorate World War II American veterans. 


Disputed issues

Despite the fanfare of Macron’s visit, distinct points of contention remain, including on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and the re-establishment of US trade tariffs on steel and aluminum. Moreover, the Élysée is being very cautious about any expectations it has of Macron's visit: Even if Paris hopes to make progress on specific issues, it is unlikely to change French public opinion about Trump.

On climate, for example, France will continue to try to mitigate global warming while facing an American president who is an open climate sceptic. But this Franco-American disagreement is not a major problem, according to Belin, because Paris relies on American NGOs and civil society, which remain very committed to the climate cause, including through movements like the coalition of cities and companies that have pledged “We are still in”, in a reference to US commitments under the Paris climate agreement.

It is this segment of society that Macron will target on April 25 when he speaks with students at Georgetown University in Washington. It will be a chance for him to express himself more freely on the subjects that distance him from Trump.

The darkest clouds hovering over the Franco-American relationship are urgent matters that must be dealt with soon, Belin believes, including “Iran and Syria [and other] issues essential to French security".

"For example, President Trump has said his wish is to withdraw American troops from Syria as soon as the fight against IS is over, but the French have an interest in ensuring a minimum of stability in this region,” she said.

As for Iran, the deadline is even shorter. “By 12 May, President Trump will decide whether he will continue to lift sanctions against Tehran or to restore them. In restoring them, he would literally be destroying the Iranian nuclear deal: He is, therefore, acting directly against French interests."

According to the Élysée, the signals from Washington on this issue are not very encouraging. Belin says that even though the Franco-American relationship is currently “excellent” it still remains “fragile”.

The long-term health of the relationship "depends greatly on the solutions that will be found in the next six months on these few major strategic issues”, she said.

Beyond bilateral relations, this visit is also an opportunity for Macron to burnish his image as an international leader by introducing himself directly to the American people. On Wednesday morning the French president will deliver a speech – in English and for about 30 minutes – to a joint session of the US Congress (as did his predecessors François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy). Macron's address will focus on the themes of democracy, values ​​and friendship that unite the two countries.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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