WASHINGTON — The contrast couldn't be greater. Washington has been celebrating French President Emmanuel Macron's state visit — the first of its kind in the Trump era — with no shortage of pomp and circumstance. First, there was a tour of George Washington's Mount Vernon mansion. Then a state dinner at the White House, and a speech to both houses of Congress.
On Friday, Angela Merkel will make her own visit Washington. Only her trip is short — lasting only a single day — and will be limited to the essential tasks of the work itself. Compared to the effort the White House is making for Macron, Merkel's visit is a demonstration of Protestant sobriety.
For one thing, this shows that France — now under Macron after five years of François Hollande — is back as an important European power on the international stage. But it also shows that the French president has proved to be much more skillful than either Merkel or British Prime Minister Theresa May at establishing a good relationship with the difficult U.S. president.
We have this very special relationship.
While there was complete silence between Merkel and Trump during the several months it took her to form a government, the U.S. president has been talking on the phone with his French counterpart at least once a week, more than with any other foreign politician. When Macron invited Trump to the military parade on Bastille Day (July 14) last year, he hit the spot with a president who has a well-known penchant for glamour. Trump was so thrilled that he now wants to have his own military parade in Washington.
Berlin is well aware that the two visits invite comparisons that are unfavorable for the Germans. But it was important for Angela Merkel to keep her appointment so as to demonstrate her ability to act internationally again after the long and difficult process in Germany of forming a coalition government.
Still, international politics are above all a question of personal chemistry and Macron has undeniably been handling his relations with Donald Trump a lot better than Merkel. This also has to do with character traits. Macron is a charmer, who wants to win everybody's favor and excels at selling himself.
"It’s Macron’s nature," William Drozdiak, who is working on a biography of the French president, told The Washington Post. "He walks into a room, sees a chair and tries to seduce it." That's why on Sunday, on the eve of his visit, Macron gave an interview to Trump's favorite network, Fox News, in which he pointed out the similarities between himself and Trump.
"We have this very special relationship because the both of us are probably the mavericks of the system," said Macron, who, like Trump, has blown up the political landscape in France. "I think President Trump's election was unexpected in your country, and probably my election was unexpected in my country. We are not part of the classical political system."
But Macron is above all a pragmatist, one who knows how important America is for the preservation of the international system and who therefore tries to maintain Trump's America as a guarantor. "The United States is the dominating power; it is our most important partner in multilateral endeavors; it's our first partner in the fight against terrorism; it's important for collective security," the French leader said in January, in an interview from Davos. "We can be angry with the United States, we may disagree about the methods — as we do on Iran — but in the end, we are in agreement."
Macron is currently trying to convince Trump not to rush into withdrawing from Syria, which would leave the field to the Russians and Iran.
The French leader's tone clearly differs from the one Merkel established with Trump from the very beginning. When Trump was elected in November 2016, the German election that would take place 11 months later was already casting a shadow. Merkel had to distance herself from Trump, who is extremely unpopular Germany. Her hands, in other words, were tied by domestic politics.
This left her with little room to maneuver in terms of charm offensives, which aren't the Chancellor's strong suit anyway. Macron then used the long period in which Merkel was busy trying to form a government — a time of international paralysis for Berlin — to reestablish France as an important European player, including by seeking proximity to Trump.
Merkel may still stand for stability, but Macron stimulates the imagination.
On top of it, France continues to have a different culture than Germany regarding military intervention, as well as a much more robust and ambitious strategic tradition. Thus, despite the domestic protests, both London and Paris insisted on taking part in the American military strikes against Syria. This is a league in which Germany neither wants nor can play, making Berlin a less useful partner for Washington than Paris, for instance.
It is, in any case, telling that Trump always takes aim at Germany — chiding its meager military spending and strong, auto-industry exports — when it comes to disparaging Europe, while the French usually get a pass.
After Trump's election victory, some U.S. newspapers were quick to proclaim Merkel the new leader of the West. That was never a particularly realistic assessment of German abilities. And since then, Merkel's star has faded noticeably. While the chancellor is still held in high regard, she's now seen as a politician in the autumn of her career, including on the other side of the Atlantic.
Macron, in contrast, represents a fresh and youthful face that inspires hope and the possibility of French revitalization. Merkel may still stand for stability, but Macron stimulates the imagination.
Beyond personal and national vanities, however, as far as Europe is concerned, it is actually of secondary importance whether Paris or Berlin has the better cards in Washington. In terms of content, both are largely pulling in the same direction. Both Merkel and Macron will try this week to stop Trump from ending the nuclear deal with Iran, which the U.S. President wants to "fix" before May 12.
And both will try to turn the exemption from the punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum, which Europe has been granted until May 1, into a permanent one. "You don't make trade war with your ally," Macron said on Fox News. The U.S. indeed needs to ask itself what its own priorities are in the face of a very complicated world situation.
Undoubtedly, Macron has a much better relationship with Trump than Merkel has. He has managed to ensnare Trump while at the same time retaining the freedom to criticize him time and again. The decisive question now is whether this good personal relationship can also be translated into results. And whether Macron and Merkel will succeed together this week in obtaining concessions from Trump, as far as the most important transatlantic disputes go.
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