What to make of the curious relationship between French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump? Their first meeting opened with “the handshake heard ’round the world,” when a clearly well-briefed Macron turned Trump’s penchant for aggressive greetings against him. Videos of their vice-grip battle of wills went viral, leading many to wonder whether the move was premeditated. In an interview with a French weekly, Macron quickly confirmed that, yes, the handshake was a way to communicate a message: that he would not be intimidated by Trump.
Trump reportedly did not take kindly to this public calling out. Days after Macron, along with the other assembled leaders, spent the better part of the G-7 summit in Sicily trying to persuade Trump not to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, Trump did just that. In making his announcement about the policy, Trump pointedly stated, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Not one to be cowed, Macron immediately released a video address that amounted to a public trolling of Trump. In it, he invited American innovators to come to France to dream up the future of clean energy, and closed by appropriating Trump’s campaign slogan: “Let’s make the planet great again,” he declared, smiling almost tauntingly into the camera.
The young, refined but brash French president, it seemed, was itching for a fight with his older, coarser but no less brash American counterpart. With pundits and observers desperately seeking to fill the now-vacant position of “leader of the free world,” Macron appeared to be throwing his hat in the ring.
But anyone who was expecting a celebrity death match was quickly disappointed. To observers’ surprise, just weeks later, in a phone call to discuss developments in Syria, Macron cordially invited Trump to attend the Bastille Day parade this week, followed by a gastronomic meal in the Eiffel Tower, and the notoriously travel-averse Trump accepted. Then, last weekend, another viral video, this one from the summit of G-20 leaders in Hamburg, Germany, seemed to show Macron eagerly pushing his way through the assembled heads of state and government to stand beside Trump in the official photograph.
Was the earlier hostility overblown or simply forgotten? Or had we missed something? Absent insiders’ accounts, it’s hard to know for sure the answer to the first question. The second is a bit easier. The short version is, yes. Macron needed to establish his bona fides as an independent leader unafraid to stand up to Trump. But despite what Trump’s European detractors might think, it is in Macron’s and France’s interests to maintain a strong partnership with the United States—and Trump, in fact, is someone he could be well-suited to work with.
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