PARIS—Two words sum up French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to invite U.S. President Donald Trump to Paris for the French national holiday, Bastille Day: noblesse oblige.
Macron, who has quickly assumed regal airs since his election in May, wanted to show his strength by inviting the leader of an historic ally, no matter who that might be. And he knew Trump—as Trump himself suggested—could hardly resist the commemoration of the American entry into World War I a hundred years ago. On Friday both American and French troops will stride down the Champs Élysées with the Arc de Triomphe looming large at the top of the hill, jet fighters screaming overhead.
And by all indications, Macron’s invitation worked wonders.
One of the biggest points of contention between the two leaders has been their vastly different positions on climate change, which came to a head with Trump’s decision last month to pull out of the Paris climate accord. Macron responded by immediately launching an initiative to lure American climate scientists to France with the slogan “Make Our Planet Great Again”—a bold riff on Trump's campaign slogan and a not-so-subtle trolling of his globally unpopular stance on the issue.
But today, at a joint press conference before French and American journalists at the Élysée Palace, Trump indicated he may reconsider his decision.
“Something could happen with respect to the Paris accord," he told reporters with typical Trump-like vagueness. “We'll see what happens.”
Trump’s hint that his decision on the climate agreement may not be a done deal after all suggests that Macron’s style of soft diplomacy—the invitation to Paris, the tour of Napoleon’s tomb and Notre Dame, the boat cruise down the Seine for the two first ladies—may have indeed been more effective than previously imagined. Or, then again, it might just be Trump’s notion of good manners.
This evening, Trump will sit down to dinner with Macron and their respective spouses at Alain Ducasse's Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Jules Verne, on the Eiffel Tower. There, the two men reportedly will be offered blue lobster and caviar, and be given the chance to sample a few of the 430 wines available in the restaurant's cellar, although Trump is a teetotaller and is said to favor overdone steak with ketchup over haute cuisine.
Many in France have been puzzled by Macron’s choice to host the most reviled American president among the French since well, ever, during the national holiday, and inside the most iconic of all French landmarks.
After all, Trump was the man whose electoral victory was described as "a nightmare that has taken shape," in the French daily Libération, and whose dinner with Macron will coincide with a nighttime protest called "No Trump Zone" at the capital's Place de la République.
Trump's personal relationship with his French counterpart also got off to a less-than-stellar start. Even before Macron’s initiative to poach American climate scientists, there was that death-grip handshake felt around the world at the NATO summit in Brussels. And during the French election campaign, Trump blatantly supported Macron's far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, who in turn wasn't shy about voicing her own admiration for Trump. Even before he set foot in the White House, she told French journalists that he would get her vote if she were an American. And who could forget her impromptu coffee at Trump Tower?
Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-globalization views (similar to Le Pen’s) also clash with those of the decades-younger Macron, who is an ardent E.U. supporter. Finally, there were Trump's baffling comments about Paris back in February. According to Trump, his friend “Jim,” a longtime visitor to the City of Light had stopped going.
“For years, every year during the summer, he would go to Paris, was automatic with his wife and his family,” Trump said at a talk at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference. “Hadn’t seen him in a while. And I said, Jim, let me ask you a question, ‘How’s Paris doing? ‘Paris? I don’t go there anymore, Paris is no longer Paris.’ ”
“Take a look at what’s happening to our world, folks, ” Trump added. “And we have to be smart. We have to be smart. We can’t let it happen to us.”
Although Trump did not clarify as to what exactly had kept “Jim” away for the past several years, he made similar comments following the Nov. 13 terror attacks suggesting that the country was being overrun by jihadists and was no longer safe—remarks that echoed those made by Le Pen on the campaign trail.
“Unfortunately France isn't what it was and Paris neither, ” he told the right-wing weekly Valeurs Actuelles. “There are areas where you have the impression that they are outside the law…that there are some lost territories of the Republic.”
Such comments made the concept of Trump dining with Macron literally inside the monument that represents the essence of the French capital seem surreal to say the least. Indeed, in an informal poll conducted by French television station LCI, only 48 percent of respondents said that the Macron was right to invite Trump to the Bastille Day ceremony. However, when questioned by a French journalist today about “Jim” and his own previous unflattering remarks about the Paris, Trump not only changed his tune, but also gave Macron what amounted to a verbal high five.
"You know what? It's going to be just fine, because you have a great president," Trump said. "You have somebody that's going to run this country right. And I would be willing to bet cause I think this is one of the great cities, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and you have a great leader now, you have a great president. You have a tough president."
"He's not going to be easy on people that are breaking the laws and people that show this tremendous violence," Trump added. "So I really have a feeling that you're going to have a very peaceful and beautiful Paris. And I'm coming back."
Turning to Macron he joked that his counterpart "better do a good job please, otherwise you're going to make me look very bad."
This about-face on the part of Trump seemed to indicate that, noblesse oblige aside, Macron’s Bastille Day invitation also served as an attempt to mend a rift between the U.S. and Europe that has been growing since November’s elections and was more apparent than ever at the G20 summit in Hamburg, where Trump appeared awkward and isolated. However, France and the U.S. are old allies—a tie that is important to maintain, regardless of Trump’s less-than-presidential antics.
"Macron wants to try to prevent the president of the United States being isolated,” French government spokesman Christophe Castaner said prior to Trump’s visit, as reported in The Telegraph. “He (Trump) sometimes takes decisions that we disagree with, on climate change for example. But we can do things: either you say 'we're not speaking because you haven't been nice' or we can reach out to him to keep him in the circle.”
Indeed, at today’s press conference the two world leaders focused on diplomatic and military endeavors in which they see eye-to-eye, namely the conflict in Syria and the ongoing fight against international terrorism.
"We have agreed to continue working together, in particular on the building of a road map for the postwar period (in Iraq and Syria),” Macron told reporters.
The only visibly awkward moment came in the form of Russia—a specter that continues to dog Trump on his overseas visit, specifically a question on a meeting between Trump’s son and a Russian lawyer regarding potential dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump defended his son as a "wonderful young man" who did nothing anybody in a political campaign wouldn't do.
Macron said he would not say anything to interfere in U.S. domestic policy.
"What a good answer that is!" Trump blurted out.
Overall, the two men sought to focus on what they have in common on policy—but many of Macron's new fans in the United States as well as France may be surprised to discover affinities beyond that.
Macron and Trump actually have a few things in common. Both come from business backgrounds (Macron is a former banker), and both achieved stunning victories at the polls despite coming from outside the political mainstream. Both also have a penchant for showmanship—anyone happen to catch a glimpse of the much-tweeted, James Bond-style photo of the French president lowering himself onto a submarine from a helicopter?
Furthermore, both statesmen have an adversarial relationship with the press. While Macron has yet to display the blatant hostility towards journalists that Trump is known for, the new president hasn’t exactly been friendly with them either. In June, just weeks after Macron’s election, Agence France Presse reported that unions representing journalists in some 20 French media groups, including the dailies Le Monde and Libération, and broadcasters Radio France and BFMTV, said that
Macron’s fledgling government was displaying “extremely worrying” signs of hostility towards the independence of the press. According to chapters of the Societe des Journalistes, the new government was “using pressure tactics and legal threats against their journalists.”
The nature of these so-called threats is vague, but apparently the labor ministry filed a document theft complaint after a Libération article included details of government plans to revise the country’s labor code. Macron also declined to participate in the traditional Bastille Day television interview with the excuse that his thoughts were “too complex” for journalists—an excuse that was highly mocked in the French press.
Macron’s bizarre excuse suggests another commonality with Trump: arrogance. While the U.S. president’s self-aggrandizement is such that some psychologists have claimed he suffers from “malignant narcissism,” a bonafide personality disorder, Macron’s egotism has played out more subtly. His decision to hold his joint session of parliament at Versailles, the symbolic seat of the bygone French monarchy, raised a few eyebrows. During the session, Macron announced that he would be trimming the number of legislators by a third, fueling further criticism that he was behaving less like a modern president and more like an old-school monarch. But it was Macron’s likening himself to Jupiter, the Roman god of god’s, that seemed the most over the top on the egotism scale.
“Hollande doesn’t believe in a Jupiterian presidency, but I don’t believe in a normal presidency,” Macron told the French magazine Challenges in 2016, referring to then-president François Hollande’s “everyman” presidential persona.
The comment came back to bite Macron after his Versailles speech, with political and media circles reacting with bemusement or outright mockery. Libération published a cartoon depicting a bare-chested Macron with a fistful of lightning bolts on its July 3rd cover, and defeated socialist candidate Benoît Hamon didn’t mince words.
“Given the campaign I’ve run, I find this Jupiterian posture a bit ridiculous,” he told France Info.
On Thursday, both men burnished their myths, in fact.