A tale of two alphas: Trump, Macron and the rocky road to rapprochement

France 24 screen grab

If young Macron was the smart kid, Trump was the school bully (he once boasted he gave a teacher a black eye). Not much has changed; relations between the two leaders have been a study in brains versus brawn, on display again at the G7 summit.


The face-offs started early. Emmanuel Macron had newly been minted president of France when he first encountered his American counterpart in Brussels in May 2017 before a NATO summit. Forewarned is forearmed, and news of Donald Trump’s marathon aggressive handshakes had filtered to this side of the Atlantic. Loath to suffer the same fate as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – whose 19-second handlock with Trump became a meme – Macron parried with an iron grip when Trump offered his hand that left his counterpart’s digits visibly whitened.

Trump is famous for hitting back. The following month in a rose garden announcement he said that he would be pulling the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, that he had been elected to “represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” (although Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto quickly tweeted his support for the climate agreement). Macron countered with a variation of a favourite Trump phrase. “Make our planet great again,” he declared, while inviting American climate scientists to come conduct their research in France.

But the line between love and hate is a thin one, and before long testiness had transmuted to amity. Trump had nothing but warm words for Macron when he flew to Paris a month later for Bastille Day celebrations on July 14, referring to France as “America’s first and oldest ally”. He was also affirming of First Lady Brigitte Macron’s physique, approvingly declaring her to be “in such great shape”.

When the two met up again nine months later, their budding friendship seemed to have devolved into frenmity, with Trump subtly humiliating Macron by pointedly flicking a speck of dandruff off the lapel of his well-cut suit. Macron just smiled while photographers snapped away.

His chance to hit back came on April 25, 2018, in a speech he delivered before Congress that was filled with barbs aimed at Trump.

“We must find a transition to a low-carbon economy,” he insisted, addressing a government that aims to revive the coal industry. “What is the meaning of our life, really, if we work and live destroying the planet while sacrificing the future of our children?” Macron pointedly asked.

“I believe we can build the right answers ... by negotiating through the WTO (World Trade Organization) and building cooperative solutions,” he said, indirectly referring to Trump’s disdain for the WTO and his reliance on tariffs.

Calling out the very ideology got Trump elected, he said the world needed to reject “isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism” and instead work through the multinational organizations that “you built”, such as the United Nations and NATO, to “shape our common answers to the global threats that we are facing”.

Since then, the relationship has been marked by their policy differences. In November Trump castigated Macron on Twitter for the French president’s suggestion that Europe should form an army. “Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!” Trump tweeted from Air Force One, shortly before touching down in France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Macron jabbed back. In a 20-minute speech at the Arc de Triomphe in front of an audience of 70 world leaders, Macron openly rebuked Trump’s policy of “America First” and called on his audience to reject the “selfishness of nations only looking after their own interests. Because patriotism is exactly the opposite of nationalism”.

At the G7 this weekend, the two men’s words and their actions painted dramatically different pictures. “I love French wine,” Trump told reporters during an impromptu lunch with Macron, just hours after threating to slap tariffs on it.

Once in France, Trump insisted that the two “actually have a lot in common” and “have been friends a long time ... Once in a while we go at it just a little bit, not very much”. But he offered G7 leaders reason to hope that they could work together.

“Everybody’s getting along,” he said. “I think we will accomplish a lot this weekend.”

That, however, was before France announced Sunday the surprise arrival of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for a meeting with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian – a maneuver that the US press characterised as an “end run” around Trump that raised eyebrows, given Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord with Iran and the hostilities between the two nations. Accounts conflicted as to whether or not Trump had been consulted about the invitation.

While the leaders may still be trying to present a warm relationship to the public, a symbol of their friendship has since withered. When Macron went to the United States for a state visit in April 2018, he brought with him a sapling taken from a WWI battlefield in France where US soldiers had fought. French newspaper Le Monde reported that it has since died.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning