|President Trump travels this week to Paris as the guest of honor at France’s annual Bastille Day celebration. It is the president’s third trip to Europe within two months, following his May visit to Belgium and Italy and his visit last week to Poland and Germany. The first two trips to Europe were noteworthy primarily for the palpable friction between the president and key European counterparts at NATO, the European Union, the G7, and the G20. President Trump’s “America First” message may have resonated with his base at home, but thus far his forays when visiting advanced democracies allied with the United States have yielded little new agreement on concrete measures. To the contrary, the United States was unable to persuade any of the leading economic powers to side with Washington on key international issues such as climate change and trade policy, and it failed to galvanize significant new action in areas where there is shared interest, such as North Korea or the fight against terrorism. Against that backdrop, President Trump will be looking for a successful visit that showcases the United States tackling international challenges alongside a willing and capable ally, with a minimum of rancor.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, in office for two months and with a freshly elected, large majority in the National Assembly, may have a similar interest—up to a point. This will be the second major international visit Macron has hosted, following Russian president Vladimir Putin’s highly symbolic late May visit to Versailles. President Trump’s travel to Germany and possible visit to London have become delicate domestic political issues for Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Theresa May, but no such shadow hangs over his stop in Paris. That is not because he is excessively popular in France—only 14 percent of the French population trust President Trump to do the right thing in international affairs, according to a recent survey by Pew Global. Rather, the visit demonstrates to the French public that President Macron is advancing French interests eye-to-eye with the world’s most powerful political figure, elevating Macron’s—and France’s—prestige.
That is not to say the two presidents will agree on everything. President Macron has been very critical of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and he is an avowed internationalist, which sets him apart from President Trump on issues like trade. But there are several areas where the United States and France have a common agenda and can showcase bilateral cooperation. The Bastille Day celebrations will be dedicated to the fight against terrorism, a priority issue in France, and the United States and France cooperate closely in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, while France also is engaged militarily in the Sahel (with essential U.S. support) to counter Islamist militants there. Opposition to possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is another area of agreement: the United States and France have drawn bright red lines in recent weeks, and Macron will be searching for indications of the firmness of the U.S. commitment. He will hope to avoid a repeat of France’s bitter experience from 2013, when London and Washington changed their minds at the 11th hour and shrank from strikes against the Syrian regime. On North Korea, Macron will share Trump’s opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, standing as a leading voice among Europeans. More generally, President Trump may highlight President Macron’s election pledge to raise French defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), though Macron’s budget minister recently announced belt-tightening for 2017 that could limit increases to the defense budget. (France already spends 1.8 percent of GDP on defense and has the third-largest defense budget in NATO behind the United States and the United Kingdom.) Strategic reviews underway in both capitals will be key areas for consultation and will contribute to shaping Europe’s defense future. Against the backdrop of Brexit, friction between Washington and Berlin, and buzz around the notion that Chancellor Merkel is becoming the “leader of the free world,” the French message will be clear: Paris is a muscular and willing ally in promoting international security and the most effective broker between the United States and Europe.
The July 14 military parade, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of U.S. forces in World War I alongside the French and British, will be meant to impress the U.S. president. Nobody does ceremony like the French, and the parade will also feature the participation of 200 U.S. soldiers along with six F-16 and two F-22 aircraft. Add an intimate dinner inside a prestigious restaurant in the Eiffel Tower and the gilt majesty of official events in the French capital’s halls of power, and this trip will offer stunning visuals to entice the international media. It will certainly display resurgent French self-confidence after two difficult years of security threats at home and political stagnation at the end of former president François Hollande’s term.
President Trump’s Paris visit may not be without sparks, however. His handshake battle with President Macron at the NATO summit in May attracted significant attention, and media outlets have been watching for signs of tension between the two leaders ever since—in vain. Macron, who pledged during the electoral campaign to reinvent politics, wants to make his ability to talk with anybody while tackling difficult topics a hallmark of his leadership. A few weeks ago, he made a point while standing next to President Putin to criticize publicly the activities of Russian state-affiliated media after an otherwise warm meeting. It is conceivable that President Macron will take the opportunity of the anticipated press conference to challenge the U.S. leader on climate change, an issue very popular with the French public, demonstrating French independence. (President Trump might not even mind a bit of public disagreement on this point, as two-thirds of Republicans say they support the president’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement.)
Both presidents have plenty to gain from this visit: Macron by playing a leading role on a global stage, and Trump by basking in the glow of decisive U.S. military intervention in Europe’s twentieth-century wars and by highlighting the ongoing security partnership with France, rather than reliving recent policy recriminations. Trump and Macron to all appearances might seem incompatible figures, and U.S.-European relations have suffered several blows during Trump’s term. The Franco-American relationship, however, has always been frank and sometimes tumultuous, yet critical to European security. Agreement between the U.S. and French leaders on core issues would demonstrate durability in the transatlantic link and a shared desire to shape the international security environment.
Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the CSIS Europe Program.
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