Tale of two presidents: Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron

Cavalry march in the Bastille Day parade
Nothing like military pageantry to grease the wheels of diplomacy. Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump take in the 2017 Bastille Day Parade in Paris (source: dpa)

Every year France celebrates its national holiday, July 14, with the biggest military parade in the Western world. It is a spectacular event commemorating the bloodthirsty start of the French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, an old prison in the center of Paris that contained only seven inmates, but no political prisoners.

This year the newly elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, welcomed his American counterpart, President Donald Trump, as the guest of honor.

Astute populist

Inviting President Trump was certainly a shrewd move by Mr. Macron. Relations between France and the United States have frequently been strained. After the U.S. elections, outgoing French President Francois Hollande made openly disparaging remarks about Mr. Trump. Mr. Macron himself was also very critical. Only the week before, at the end of the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 8, President Macron said as the talks broke up: “Our world has never been so divided. Centrifugal forces have never been so powerful. Our common goods have never been so threatened.”

This was a direct criticism of Mr. Trump's policy. The American president’s unpopularity in Europe appears to be used by Mr. Macron in a populistic, but politically astute way. The goal is to raise his profile as “world leader.” President Macron was especially quick to grasp this opportunity in the emotional climate debate. “Make our planet great again” was his slogan, intended to express his global statesmanship as opposed to Mr. Trump’s “Make America great again.”

Mr. Macron placed himself on equal footing with the most powerful man on earth

Mr. Macron is cleverly trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, he has combined grandiloquent rhetoric with the “Trump bashing” so popular in Europe to show his leadership. On the other, he has placed himself on equal footing with the most powerful man on earth, inviting him as a best friend to watch one of the world’s most magnificent military parades.

It seems part of a strategy to reassert French leadership in Europe, at least on par with the German chancellor. This is a role France has lost gradually through poor leadership, but also owing to the dire condition of its public finances and the weaker productivity of its economy compared to Germany’s.

The French president probably also hoped to impress his American counterpart with a demonstration of the military power that still resides in la grande nation. This presupposes, of course, that Donald Trump can be impressed by such displays of self-confidence.

Media masters

For all the differences in their roles and personalities, there are some quite striking similarities between the two men.

Mr. Trump forced his way as an outsider into an established party, while Mr. Macron left the Socialist Party to form a new movement. Neither was a career politician.

Both owe their election success to the established media – but from opposite angles. The U.S. media’s open antagonism toward Donald Trump, and their constant outpouring of negative news while avoiding a fact-based discussion of his program, gave a huge if unintended boost to the Trump campaign. It was a cheap and automatic source of publicity. Mr. Macron, on the other side, benefited from being what the French call a chouchou – an affectionate term of endearment that can also mean “teacher’s pet.” In short, he was a media darling.

Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump meet in Paris
These two men favor different neckties, but they both know how to strike a royal attitude (source: dpa)

Thus, while Mr. Trump generated constant buzz and could focus his marketing and promotion effort on the low-cost social media, Mr. Macron got a free pass. Both men won presidential campaigns that were brutal and very messy.

Their main common characteristic is pragmatism.

This shows in the way both have harnessed the climate debate for their direct use. President Macron pretends to lead in the crusade against global warming and reducing carbon emissions. President Trump does just the opposite, casting doubt on global warming's validity.

Mr. Macron’s energy plans, however, are quite unrealistic. To the extent that they emulate the German Energiewende, his proposals will damage France’s energy security and (by restraining nuclear power) increase rather than decrease CO2 output. The French president certainly understands this, but is pursuing a political purpose. In this sense, the Americans may be more realistic about climate policy, because they are globally promoting technologies and fuels (nuclear power, shale gas) that reduce the output of pollutants from combustion.

Royal manner

Neither president seems to feel the need for close contacts with the traditional media anymore. The White House mostly ignores them. President Trump did not bother to attend the traditional White House Correspondents’ gala, an occasion where his predecessors had paid regular tribute to the power of the press.

President Macron has struck a royal attitude since his inauguration – giving Mr. Trump’s approach a slightly different spin – refusing most contacts with the press. He even canceled the traditional Bastille Day interview. Le Monde newspaper quoted an Elysee official saying that the 39-year-old president’s “complex thought process lends itself badly to the game of question-and-answer with journalists.”

Trump uses the strength of the world's sole hegemonic power, while Macron has leveraged support from the European Union

On the trade side, President Trump's protectionist image helps Mr. Macron portray himself as a free-trade champion.

Both men want to be world leaders. Donald Trump, the president of the world’s sole hegemonic power, is using his country's strength. Emmanuel Macron, the head of a former great power and now a middle-sized power, has adopted a global approach that leverages support from the European Union.

The domestic approval ratings for both men’s policies have dropped since they took office. Further developments will be interesting. Global expectations were quite low when Donald Trump won the elections, including those of more than half of those who voted. Expectations for Mr. Macron, by contrast, are very high.

It is to be hoped – and remains quite realistic – that Mr. Trump's record in office will be much better than his critics thought possible. At the same time, questions linger. Can President Macron live up to those lofty expectations? And will President Trump be able to act in the present toxic political atmosphere of Washington?

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