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15 December 2017updated 07 Sep 2021 10:03am

Macron’s biggest success? Standing up to Trump

Like everything else he does, there's always the slight risk that he may be overdoing it.

By Pauline Bock

Emmanuel Macron is not a hero – not even a liberal one. He’s unhealthily obsessed with power symbolism, his feminism is shady at best, his political values shaky, his media strategy borderline Orwellian; he struggles to respectfully address France’s class problem, post-colonialism, immigration, military. At home, Macron still has to prove that he can deliver on his numerous campaign promises and successfully roll on his reforms.

But since it’s almost Christmas, we’ll give him this: internationally, Macron’s voice has been louder in six months than Francois Hollande’s ever was in five years. And if there is one matter in which Macron is truly succeeding, it is standing up to the US president and arsonist-in-chief, Donald Trump.

Last May, Macron kicked off his presidency with a strong, much-talked about handshake shared with the US president, interpreted as a sign that France would not compromise with . In June, Macron gave Trump his warm greetings at a Nato meeting – right after ignoring him to welcome Merkel first.

That backfired: Macron’s bravado, according to The Washington Post, was one of the reasons that led Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate accords.

But in July, the two presidents, seemingly reconciled, paraded on the Champs-Elysees in Paris and had dinner on top of the Eiffel tower for Bastille day. Macron declared that the US president’s presence was proof of “the sign of a friendship across the ages” and that “nothing will ever separate” France and America; Trump, delighted by the military parade, called the French president “a great guy”, “smart” and “strong”.  Macron had won his respect by playing by his rules: a tough game of male ego hard-ball followed by a wooing show.

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Trump is still unpredictable and Macron still walking a very thin line, but since Bastille day, the French president seems to have earned the right to challenge his American counterpart without causing much fury in return.  “We have an extremely cordial relationship. Sometimes, we have contradictory views but sometimes we agree”, Macron recently told Der Spiegel.

Really, it’s just white male privilege made diplomacy; but it’s working quite well for him: Angela Merkel is busy trying to form a government and Theresa May has long been accused of “cowardice” for her lack of response to Trump’s actions, making anything Macron gets right look like he’s the last leader standing.

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The French president has lectured his American counterpart on many of his curious, and sometimes dangerous, diplomatic decisions. When Trump decided to reject the Iran nuclear deal, Macron, speaking at the UN, called him “irresponsible” and said: “To reject it now without proposing anything else would be a grave error”. In an interview with TIME, he added: “If you stop the 2015 agreement, what’s your other option? To launch war? To attack Iran?”

Macron opposes Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and has made sure he told American media what he thinks about it. Calling it a “mistake”, he told CBS News: “Such a unilateral decision is not compliant with our international discussions and our international rules and will not facilitate a peace process.” He also told TIME that he doesn’t follow Trump on Twitter and finds that using social media while in office isn’t presidential.

All these separate burns would not be accepted if coming from someone else – but Macron has mastered the art of criticising Trump with a straight face and a respectful tone, as (all-powerful, white and male) equals.

As he demonstrated again this week at the One Planet Summit, Macron excels in shading Trump on one topic: climate change.

The French president, who organised the climate summit in Paris, made a point not to invite Trump. He declared Trump’s choice to withdraw from the Paris accords is a “mistake” and accused him to “sort of dismantling of the accords”. He said: “It’s extremely aggressive to decide on its own just to leave, and no way to push the others to renegotiate because one decided to leave the floor. I’m sorry to say that. It doesn’t fly.” And then: “You cannot renegotiate with more than 180 or 190 countries. You disagree with that, but what’s your plan B? I don’t know your plan B.”

But, playing the nobleman, he declared: “I’m ready to welcome him if he decides to come back”. He said he trusted the American president to recognise his “historical responsibility” and, in an ultimate act of friendly superiority, concluded: “I am quite certain that my friend, president Trump, will change his mind in the months or years to come.”

Macron may genuinely be invested in saving the planet, but he knows he has a lot to gain on the international stage by painting himself as Trump’s direct opposing number. HAnd he’s not even pretending: his wake-up call for the environment is “Make our Planet Great Again.” He admitted to CBS that Trump’s withdrawal decision “created a huge momentum [for him] to create a counter-momentum.”

Before you hail Emmanuel Macron, environmental hero, savvy diplomat and saviour of the Earth, just remember: without his strong handshake and boastful comments that followed, the United States may still be part of the Paris accords. Someone save this man from himself.