PARIS — On Monday evening, the French watched reports of President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Washington as if spectators at the Comédie Française, unsure whether the elaborately choreographed new play would veer toward tragedy or farce. As the first ladies in spike heels teetered on the lawn during a White House tree planting, and the burly, clownish President Donald Trump received the slight, elegant Macron with kisses, the spectacle both amazed and amused.
The big unanswerable question is how it will end––but since the beginning this “bromance” (a term Macron aides keep trying to shoot down) has been a curious drama.
Last summer the world watched with curiosity and surprise as French President Emmanuel Macron rolled out the red carpet for Donald Trump and welcomed him to the country’s annual Bastille Day celebrations.
After all, this was the same man who had seized Trump’s hand in a vice-grip greeting felt around the world at the NATO summit in Brussels, and went so far as to troll his American counterpart following the former’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord by launching an initiative to lure U.S.-based climate scientists to France.
“To all scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, responsible citizens who were disappointed by the decision of the president of the United States, I want to say that they will find in France a second homeland,” an earnest Macron said in the video, addressing viewers in English.
He even went so far as to name the initiative “Make our Planet Great Again,” an audacious riff on Trump’s own campaign slogan.
As for Trump, not only did he blatantly support Macron’s far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, during the French election campaign a year ago, but he also made unflattering comments about the French capital, suggesting that it was overrun with jihadists and was no longer worth visiting.
“Paris in no longer Paris,” Trump announced at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference—a comment that would come back to bite him during a press conference during last July's visit.
Even Trump’s arrival in the French capital began on a highly awkward note in the form of creepy, inappropriate comments about the figure of French first lady Brigitte Macron, who is in her sixties.
“You’re in such good shape,” Trump said before turning to Macron. “She is in such good shape. Beautiful.”
But then the unthinkable happened: Macron’s Bastille Day charm offensive worked wonders and an unlikely political bromance was born.
“You know what? It’s going to be just fine, because you have a great president,” Trump told reporters in response to questions about his earlier comments about the city. “You have somebody that’s going to run this country right.”
So impressed was Trump by the young French president’s welcome, that he even hinted he might reconsider his stance on the Paris climate agreement.
He then set off for dinner with Macron on the Eiffel Tower—a location choice that was almost comical given Trump’s earlier anti-Paris comments. Despite his bluster, Trump was literally dining inside the most iconic of French monuments—a symbolic and personal victory for Macron, who had succeeded where other European leaders had failed dismally. In flattering Trump, he had shored up ties with an essential ally and bolstered the position of France on the world stage.
Trump may still be, to put it mildly, widely disliked by the French, but Macron has chosen to look beyond the American president’s often outrageous antics for the sake of his own agenda. Indeed, in a televised interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr in January, Macron carefully emphasized their “good relationship,” despite pointed questions over Trump’s personality and baffling tweets.
“Look, I think he is not a typical politician,” Macron said evenly when asked about his impression of Trump. “He was elected by the American people as the president of the United States, and that is a great country and that is a great ally. So I want to work with him and I want to build a very strong relationship.”
“We disagree on several topics,” Macron continued, adding that he called Trump regularly. “I am always very direct and frank. Sometimes I manage to convince him, and sometimes I fail.”
The fledgling president’s position as what some analysts have dubbed the “Trump whisperer,” appears to have paid off, at least in the short run. In a first since the days of Calvin Coolidge, Trump passed his first year in office without inviting a foreign counterpart for a state visit. However, when he did, he chose Macron. The question remains whether Macron will succeed or fail to convince Trump to change his positions on trade tariffs or, critically, the Iran nuclear deal.
On such issues, Trump tends to return to rhetoric and positions that please his core supporters, not his foreign counterparts.
Following their dinner last night at George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon mansion, the two leaders plan to get down to business Tuesday before holding a joint press conference. Once again, the world’s eyes will be on Macron as much as Trump.
A failure to find common ground could damage Macron’s reputation back home, where he is currently under pressure from striking rail workers and disgruntled students. Moreover, because Trump remains so reviled in France, getting too close to him could further erode Macron’s waning popularity. Trump has a way of betraying friends and allies if he thinks they might be disloyal to him, and a betrayal of Macron would hurt one of the last best advocates for centrism in the face of ferocious populist polarization across Europe and around the world.
“What is reasonable is real; that which is real is reasonable,” said the German philosopher Hegel, who fascinated the French leader during his university days. For anyone who has followed his bombastic late-night Twitter tirades, reasonability is not Trump's forte. Whether the friendship between the two men will move beyond symbolic gestures, and, more importantly, whether Macron can indeed act as a voice of reason for America’s impetuous leader remains to be seen.