Remember the never-ending handshake? It was 14 July 2017, Bastille Day, and Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump opened their formal relationship as leaders of their respective countries by interlocking palms and refusing to let go. They kept at it for a good 30 seconds. They didn’t release even as Trump began kissing Macron’s wife.
It looked like the beginnings of a bitter rivalry. But Trump and Macron weren’t clashing. They were flirting. The night before, the two men — plus wives — had had an intimate dinner in the Eiffel Tower, and they bonded. A great bromance had been born.
For all his posturing, Macron treated the US President like an emperor in Paris. Later this month the Macrons are going to Washington, and Trump will return the favour by honouring them with his administration’s first full state dinner. Macron and Trump now dance cheek-to-diplomatic-cheek, as George W. Bush and Tony Blair once did. Theresa May can only look on, wondering what might have been.
This week, President Trump — facing all sorts of domestic problems and a possible trade war with China — decided it might be handy to divert attention abroad and talk tough to the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad over the reported use of chemical weapons. So he called Macron, who is having his own difficulties on the home front, and they decided on a ‘strong, joint response’ against Assad.
The French president, who used to work for Rothschild bank, understands how to deal with billionaires. He knows that to keep ’em keen you have to treat ’em mean. The Bastille Day shake-off was in fact Trump’s attempt to get even. A few weeks earlier, during a photo-op at a Nato summit in Brussels, Macron had gripped Trump’s hand so tightly his knuckles turned white. He also ostentatiously blanked Trump on the blue Nato carpet, then boasted about how he had owned the President in a ‘moment of truth’.
Then, after Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accords, Macron pulled a preposterous inverse-Trump move, calling a press conference and telling the cameras that his mission was to ‘make ze planet great again.’
None of this hurt Trump — quite the reverse. It merely picqued his interest in that cocky young guy who runs that country called France. He flirted back at Macron by telling him, publicly, that his 65-year-old wife was ‘in such good physical shape’. And while in public the two leaders played at hating each other, in private they formed a bond. Macron the globalist darling may have presented himself on his campaign trail as ‘l’anti-Trump’, and Trump as the anti–globalist, but, au fond, they both worship power and money, and they have both realised that they need each other.
When Trump announced his intention to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Macron, reportedly after calls with the White House, decided to tell the Arab world to accept it. He dispatched his deputy national security adviser Aurélien Lechevallier to Ramallah to instruct the Palestinians as to the merits of Trump’s Middle East vision. ‘The plan might turn out to be bad but don’t blow it up right now,’ Lechevallier told them. Thanks, said the Palestinians.
Now, on Syria, Trump and Macron have agreed that something must be done. Both men have been influenced by Mohammad Bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who has been on a charm tour of Britain, America and France. Salman is understood to be desperate to stop Iran’s expansionist ambitions, and Assad is allied to Tehran. This week Macron hosted the prince at another lavish dinner in the Louvre. He showed MBS around a new Delacroix exhibition in the museum: Delacroix, Macron’s aides stressed in case the reporters didn’t click, was ‘known notably for the famous painting of Liberty Leading The People’. The one with the naked woman — boobs not burkas, get it?
What Macron appreciates as much as Trump is that in the internet age, leadership is performance art. In a way, perhaps, that means that America’s special relationship with France in the 2010s is less dangerous than the UK-US alliance of the 2000s. Whereas Blair and Bush consummated their friendship with a full invasion of Iraq, the new Franco-US entente cordiale can thrive with just public declarations of support, and perhaps the odd missile hurled at a bad guy.