Trump, Macron on different sides in global political battle
Donald Trump visits Paris on Thursday — the last and potentially most consequential leg of his European trip — to see his “great” friend Emmanuel Macron. However, while the mood music may be upbeat, there are growing signs that relations between the two presidents are cooling, with key international implications, including for the upcoming French-hosted G7 summit.
In the first two years of Macron’s presidency, the two leaders — of vastly different ages and political philosophies — had been intriguing for the apparent close political bonds they forged. Part of this appears to have been based around Macron’s careful outreach to Trump, sensing an opportunity to sway US thinking and elevate France in global affairs.
Trump reciprocated, inviting Macron for a state visit in Washington last year, and they share political positioning as perceived insurgent outsiders with a business background. Moreover, the two have a number of shared international objectives, including in countering international terrorism, with France, for instance, being the second-largest contributor to the US-led coalition in Syria.
But the relationship has deteriorated and this could have key implications, including for August’s G-7 summit in Biarritz. It has been widely reported that Macron doesn’t want the summit to adopt formal conclusions if key policy differences re-emerge with Trump. To this end, what the French president is proposing is that the summit would not have a joint leadership statement. Instead, there would be a “Chair’s Summary,” in which Macron takes stock of the wide-ranging discussions to address key global challenges, rather than there being the haggling and acrimony of last year’s Canadian-hosted G7, which saw the traditional joint statement disavowed by Trump.
The latest disagreement between Trump and Macron came only this week, when the US president took a shot at his French counterpart over the so-called “Yellow Vest” protesters. This follows Macron’s recent objections to a potential EU-US trade deal because of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Trump retorted that the protests in French cities over fuel costs highlighted that he had made the right decision on the climate agreement.
Climate change is just one of the issues where the two disagree, with other vexed topics including EU-US trade tensions and the Iran nuclear deal.
Yet climate change is just one of the issues where the two disagree, with other vexed topics including EU-US trade tensions and the Iran nuclear deal. On the latter, Macron wants to retain the agreement but get tough on Tehran’s ballistic missile program and wider regional activities.
This underlines that the overall context for Thursday’s meeting is stark policy divergences. This was forcefully highlighted in Macron’s trip to Washington last year, when, in a speech to Congress, he gave a passionate denunciation of Trump’s “America First” agenda, warning that it offers “a tempting remedy for our fears” but is wrongheaded, and that international engagement and cooperation are the true solutions.
This shows the global ramifications of their differences, inasmuch as they embody, more than any other democratic leaders, the current “battle” in international relations between an apparently rising conservative, populist tide and the liberal center ground.
Beyond classic political notions of left and right, however, a key dividing line that has become more salient in international politics is between a liberal cosmopolitan pole and a populist (or even xenophobic authoritarian) one. This liberal cosmopolitan versus populist battle played out in Trump’s election victory over Hillary Clinton.
Yet, defying many expectations, there was a partial turnaround in fortunes in 2017 — in Europe at least, as Macron’s victory showed.
This divide also came through in last month’s European Parliament elections, which saw a rising tide for liberals and Greens, as well as populists such as the extreme-right League in Italy, Fidesz in Hungary, and the UK’s Brexit Party.
Time will tell how significant this potential turnaround in fortunes proves to be for those forces championing the political center ground. Warning signs were shot back in 2018 by the elections in Italy, where the populist Five Star and the League now govern in a coalition, and in Germany, where the far right won legislative seats for the first time in some six decades.
For now, at least, it is Macron’s victory — especially remarkable given his meteoric rise in early 2017 — that is still being looked to by many for potential lessons to other left and centrist politicians. This is because Macron’s success came by him proving a foil to right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and other conservatives by positioning himself against what he calls the old left and right.
His candidacy was driven, in part, by his pioneering of a new political movement, En Marche, which has at least temporarily filled a significant vacuum of power in France that was created by widespread disenchantment with the traditional party system.
Last month, he succeeded in transplanting similar political tactics to the European level. This saw the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and center-right European People’s Party — the two powers that have largely held sway in the Brussels Parliament since it became directly elected in 1979 — lose their previous majority. The clear victors were the pro-EU Greens and the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (including En Marche), even though Macron’s party finished slightly behind Le Pen’s National Rally in France.
That result underlines, yet again, that Macron’s ultimate success in the coming years is by no means guaranteed, given France’s volatile political mood. And, if his agenda is perceived to fail, the primary beneficiary may well be Trump’s political soulmate, Le Pen. Despite her loss in 2017, she secured more than 40 percent of the vote and is young enough to carry the populist, far-right flag in French presidential elections well into the 2020s.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.