Macron’s biggest success? Standing up to Trump

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

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At home, French President Emmanuel Macron still has to prove that he can deliver on his numerous campaign promises and successfully roll on his reforms, all the while facing  concerns that he is unhealthily obsessed with power symbolism, his claims to feminism are shady at best, and his media strategy borderline Orwellian. He's struggling to address problems around France’s class problempost-colonialismimmigration, and military.

But internationally, Macron’s voice has been louder in six months than François 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, Donald Trump.

Last May, Macron kicked off his presidency with a strong, much-talked about handshake with the US president, interpreted as a sign that France would not compromise with Trump's America. 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.

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.

It may be the epitome of 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, giving Macron the chance to shine by getting the basics right.

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.

This string of criticisms would likely have been unnaceptable to the US President coming from someone else – but Macron has mastered the art of criticising Trump with a straight face and a respectful tone, as equals.

As he demonstrated again this week at the One Planet Summit, Macron even excels in throwing shade at 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 a “mistake” and accused him 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 in opposition to Trump, something he emhpasised with his “Make our Planet Great Again”, climate change slogan. He admitted to CBS that Trump’s withdrawal decision “created a huge momentum [for him] to create a counter-momentum.”

Though, of course before you hail Macron as an environmental hero, it's worth remembering that without that strong handshake and boastful comments, the United States may never have pulled out of the Paris accords in the first place. 

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.