Donald Trump, President of the US, responded positively weeks ago to the invitation of the newly elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, to assist at the military parade of the 14 of July. French public opinion, as well as experts, were certainly divided concerning such invitation and the presence of the American president at this national celebration. Politipond argues that such invitation was aligned with France-US interests and US-Europe interests regardless of the domestic turmoils of Donald Trump and his cabinet. Furthermore, this official visit highlighted a complex divide between the perceptions of the US, as an ally, and the perceptions of the US through the representation of his president. This subtlety was lost in translation.
Logics and reasons
Macron’s invitation has divided experts, public opinion and the media. Politico Europe probably published the article with the most telling title, Trump and Macron go from mano a mano to tête-à-tête referencing the evolving tone of the relationship between the two men. If Macron demonstrated toughness during their first meetings at the NATO and G-7 summits in May, their third meeting on July 13-14 seemed much warmer. The claim is that Macron strategized his interaction with his American homologue in order to foster respect. Candidate and then President Trump have been consistent, as he has continuously demonstrated considerable respect to strongmen such as Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, and apparently Emmanuel Macron.
Some have compared Macron and Trump as they share some similitudes. Both won outside the party system; Macron created a movement Onward! a year prior the election and managed to undermine the historical supremacy of the right and left by winning the presidential and legislative elections, while Trump running as a republican candidate certainly does not fit within the conventional ideological lines of the party. Both are framed as non-politicians, as having never ran for office. If it is true for Trump, it is not the fully the case for Macron having evolved in the highest political spheres during the Hollande presidency. But the comparison cannot go furthermore. Macron has a certain understanding of politics and the history of the French Fifth Republic as designed and envisioned by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. Macron is carefully crafting a presidential image, under the Jupiterian president aura, through a demonstration of strengthen as he is oftentimes represented surrounded by French military might. If President Sarkozy was seen as the hyperactive president, François Hollande, the ‘normal’ president, Macron is concerned about displaying and embodying French grandeur.
From Paris, especially the Elysée, the message behind this invitation was to commemorate the entry of the US in 1917 in World War one, which plays against the isolationist narrative emanating from the White House. 1917 symbolizes American engagement in the world, while 2017 may illustrate the beginning of a potential American isolationism. The relationship between the two countries is over 200 years old. The French monarchy played an important role in assisting the patriots against the British crown. Benjamin Franklin played a considerable role starting in 1776 in engaging with France, while serving from 1776 to 1778 in a commission in France in charge of getting French support for American independence. France not only recognized American’s independence but as well concluded an alliance with the 13 colonies in 1778. Skipping one century, in 1917 when the Americans joined the war on the European continent, Colonel C. E. Stanton, General John J. Pershing’s aide, famously declared before the tomb of the Marquis Lafayette, ‘Lafayette, we are here!’ This brief historical anecdotes illustrate the deep ties and historical connections between the two countries. The ties go beyond the leader at the time.
Points of Convergence?
The intervention of the two presidents in front of the press lists the series of issues wherein the US and France have shared interests: the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria, counter-terrorism, free and ‘fair’ trade, and the sanctity of national sovereignty. Two additional items were on the agenda of the French president. The first one concerned the COP-21 or Paris agreement entered into force Fall 2016 ratified by 153 nations. President Trump announced early on his presidency that the US would withdraw from the binding deal. European leaders, in particular Chancellor Merkel and President Macron, have been adamant about the necessity to meet the goals set-up in order to address the root causes of climate change.
The second item, an unconfirmed point, may be regarding potential American support to the initiative of the G5 Sahel bloc – Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad -, planning on launching a new multinational military force led by African powers. France has been militarily involved in the Sahel region since 2013 in order to limit the regional influence of Islamist militant group. This new force will operate in coordination with French troops and MINUSMA, Mali’s struggling U.N. peacekeeping mission. Financially, the European Union has pledged around 50 million euros, while France would contribute around 8 million euros by the end of the year. The US have played a role in providing equipments, information and military support to the French. This military effort aligns with the transatlantic counter-terrorist strategy. However, no comments on this point emerged.
Beyond the 14 of July – Perceptions matter
The Franco-American relationship has not deteriorated, but the French positive perception of the US as embodied by President Trump have collapsed over night. The recent Pew research center’s report on global perceptions illustrates clearly the instant changes of attitudes towards the US at the critical juncture of November 2016, the election of Donald Trump.
The graph tells a compelling story of an immediate decline in the positive views of the US in a period of four months dropping by 15 percentage points (pp). The most damaging decline illustrates the confidence in the US presidency, wherein 74% expressed no confidence in President Trump, as opposed to 23% for President Obama.
This graph provides a global snapshot of the shifting perceptions between Presidents Obama and Trump. The only two countries with positive perceptions are Israel (+7pp) and Russia (+42pp). The rest of the world tends to share a lack of confidence in the American presidency held by Trump. The most critical are Sweden (-83), the Netherlands (-75pp), Germany (-75pp), South Korea (-71pp), and France (-70pp). Concerning the list of European countries above, President Obama had received strong support and a total admiration by Europeans. And this despite serious crises occurring during his mandate such as the Snowden revelations.
The last graph provides a snapshot over a longer period of time of the level of confidence in Western Europe (UK, Germany, France and Spain) in the American leader in power.
President Bush never received considerable positive reviews from Europe. But the most damaging moment of his presidency, from European point of view, was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The UK and Spain joined the coalition of the willing, which was not the case for France and Germany. The confidence in the US grew overnight ensuing the election of President Obama in 2008. The Snowden revelations were the lowest point for President Obama and the EU-US relationship during his two mandates. But the persona of Obama was sufficient in maintaining positive perceptions and confidence in the US in Europe. As the confidence ratings climbed overnight in 2008 by ~+60 pp, they dropped by ~60pp.
Trump or Not, the US Remains Central
As advanced in the report, President Trump is perceived, especially in France and Europe, as arrogant, intolerant and dangerous. The data proves that the US-Franco/Europe relations continues to remain strong despite the occasional disagreements. Regardless of the tenant of the White House, the United States remains the indispensable nation figuring at the heart of world affairs and geopolitics. In the case of Europe, the United States is a major contributor and guarantor of European security, through NATO and parallel transatlantic defense and intelligence ties. President of France positions himself as a pragmatist, as declared during his meeting with Vladimir Putin in June. It is in the interest of both countries to maintain strong political, diplomatic and cultural ties. France has a card to play with at this time considering the fraught relationship between the German and American leaders and the ongoing turmoils in the UK. The key for the French leader is to keep a balance between cooperation and independence.