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Mission accomplished? Macron’s charm offensive and the crusade to sway Trump

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America/AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron addresses a joint session of the US Congress on Capitol Hill on April 25, 2018.

President Emmanuel Macron’s speech to Congress on Wednesday was hailed for restating France’s opposition to the ideologies of the Donald Trump era. But it is far from clear whether Macron succeeded in coaxing any concessions from the US president.


The Trumps rolled out the red carpet for Macron and First Lady Brigitte Macron, honouring them with, among other things, the first White House state dinner of the Trump era. US media reported breathlessly on the body language between the two leaders – the hand-holding, the kisses, the embraces and even some impromptu grooming in the Oval Office.

Macron, 40, is not the first to observe that one way to influence Trump is through flattery and favourable photo ops. High hopes had preceded his arrival amid press coverage noting that the two men speak often by phone and touting Macron’s skills as the Trump whisperer”.

But for all the pomp and circumstance, Macron’s speech to Congress at the end of his three-day visit on Wednesday clearly restated France’s opposition to the prevailing “America First” ideologies of the Trump administration. The French leader tackled the notions of nationalism and authoritarianism head on, pushing back at a president often criticised for being both nationalist and authoritarian.

Going forward, he said, the US must make a choice between retreating and engaging with the world’s challenges.

“We can choose isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism … It can be tempting to us as a temporary remedy to our fears,” Macron told the Republican and Democratic lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill.

“But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world. It will not douse, but inflame, the fears of our citizens,” he said.

Macron called on the United States, as the architect of the current world order, not to turn its back on the mechanisms of international cooperation.

"The United States is the one who invented this multilateralism,” he said. “You're the ones now who have to help to preserve and reinvent it.”

In an apparent reference to Trump’s avid embrace of the world’s strongmen – from Russian President Vladimir Putin to China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines – Macron pointedly said he did not share this “fascination” and called on Congress to leave them behind in fashioning "the future we want".

Pivoting to the Iran nuclear deal – which many surmised was at the top of Macron’s agenda for his US trip – the French president adopted a tough tone before Congress while acknowledging the limits of the agreement.

“Our objective is clear: Iran shall never possess any nuclear weapons. Not now, not in five years, not in 10 years. Never,” he said.

"It is true to say that this agreement may not address all concerns, very important concerns… But we should not abandon it without having something substantial, more substantial, instead," Macron said, reiterating that France was willing to work with Washington on creating “a more comprehensive deal".

Following Macron’s speech, some of the Democrats present said they were impressed by Macron's willingness to confront Trump.

House Democrat Adam Schiff told AFP that Macron had provided "more of a direct contradiction of the president than I was expecting".

"There were more than a few uncomfortable moments on the GOP side of the aisle," he added.

Mission accomplished?

Macron’s visit comes at a time of "deep skepticism and doubt” over the role of the United States on the world stage, noted Benjamin Haddad, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, in an interview with FRANCE 24.Over the past week Macron has been furiously making the case for internationalism, even going “beyond Washington” to appeal straight to the American heartland.

"It was interesting to see that he decided to be interviewed on Fox News Sunday, which was a way to reach the Trump base, the voters who have decided to endorse this vision of inward-looking, America First,” Haddad said.

But John MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine in the United States, said Macron’s visit has merely served to confer legitimacy on Trump and helped “normalise” him rather than inducing him to embrace multilateralism.

Macron's speech to Congress did little to offset the overall impression of compliance with Washington, he said. “You cannot separate the speech to Congress from the glad-handing and the hugging and kissing."

“He seems to actually believe Trump will listen to him where Trump won’t listen to anyone else," MacArthur said, calling this idea "the height of vanity" and "probably counter-productive”.

Haddad maintained that while Trump may be “very divisive and unpopular” domestically, the rest of the world has no choice but to engage with him.

“There is no other alternative for leaders in Europe to defend their own interests, to defend their agenda, than to engage – as best as they can – the president of the United States,” he said.

“The idea that foreign leaders are normalising Trump by engaging him, I think is a complete misunderstanding of the way the rest of the world sees the situation… The rest of the world has to deal with the reality of the United States.”

And he said some progress has already been made on the international front in bringing Trump back into the global fold.

“I would argue that in certain areas [diplomacy] has been rather successful, because you have President Trump – who campaigned on a very anti-European, anti-NATO platform – and we have brought him to engage the Europeans, to – for the moment – hold the line on Russia sanctions, engage NATO …”

“We are far from the ‘NATO is obsolete’ rhetoric of the campaign,” he said.

Macron’s approach has drawn unfavourable comparisons with that of another European leader, Britain's Tony Blair, who opted for close cooperation with then US president George W. Bush but quickly became known as Bush's lapdog.

There was some indication this week that Macron had influenced the US president's thinking on Syria, however. Trump, who has said he wants to withdraw US troops, credited Macron with highlighting the dangers of allowing Iran to fill the power vacuum left by the Islamic State group.

"We'll be coming home," Trump said. "But we want to leave a strong and lasting footprint."

Final test looms

It remains to be seen whether Macron has succeeded in changing the US president’s mind enough to influence policy, said Gérald Olivier, editor of the blog France-Amérique. “Did it (the speech) resonate with Trump? … I don’t think so.”

Olivier noted that the French public has been closely monitoring Macron’s attempts to persuade Trump on issues ranging from Iran to new steel and aluminum tariffs, an EU exemption for which expires on May 1.

“He seems to have failed on most of those points,” Olivier said. “The Iran deal, most probably.”

Indeed, Trump appeared to double down on rejecting the nuclear agreement in a joint news conference with Macron on Tuesday. "People know my views on the Iran deal…” he said. “It's insane, it's ridiculous. It should have never been made."

Speaking to reporters near the end of his US visit, Macron said he suspected Trump would disregard his appeals and withdraw from the Iran nuclear pact, largely because it was a campaign promise.

While Macron said he had no "inside information" on what the US president will eventually decide, he believes Trump will “get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons".

A final test of Macron’s persuasive powers arrives on May 12, the deadline for Trump’s decision on whether or not to walk away from the deal. Tehran, for its part, has said it would “vigorously” resume uranium enrichment if the US scraps the agreement and even warned it might withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty, an international accord aimed at stemming the spread of nuclear weapons.

Speaking at the White House after talks with Trump on Tuesday, Macron himself acknowledged that his efforts this week will have been for nought if the nuclear deal collapses. "If, after the hour we have spent together, the United States had said we are tearing up the agreement, while France wished to defend it, then our friendship would serve no purpose."

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