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President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron don't quite seem fated to be friends.

In the space of just a couple of months, the two have sparred over a range of issues. Macron's barbed remarks after a white-knuckle handshake they shared in May angered Trump so much that it supposedly sealed his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. In the buildup to his election victory, Macron sought and won the endorsement of former president Barack Obama, while his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, cast herself in league with the Trump White House.

Macron and Trump do seem poles apart ideologically. Macron's animated defense of the European project and his embrace of the fight against climate change collide directly with Trump's avowed ultranationalism and climate skepticism. To the “America First” boosters in the White House, the youthful Macron, a former banker who served a stint as economy minister in France's previous center-left government, is the poster child of the “globalist” elite they revile.


The famous Trump-Macron handshake on May 25, 2017, in Brussels. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

But when the two men meet in Paris for France's Bastille Day celebrations, Trump may find reason to feel more than a bit wistful — and not just because he'll be watching the sort of stirring military parade he couldn't get staged on Pennsylvania Avenue on the day of his inauguration.

Macron's and Trump's ascendancies were, in some ways, mirror images of the other. Each ran as a maverick candidate with a campaign promising national renewal at a time when many in his country were despairing of the status quo. “They're both outsiders who captured anti-establishment anger, campaigned against the failures of both incumbent parties, had never ran for office, and come with business experience,” said Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow on European and transatlantic politics at the Hudson Institute.

But Macron managed to win the strong mandate that has conspicuously eluded Trump. The French president's large election victory was followed by a smashing parliamentary win for his brand-new Republic on the Move party. Macron secured a commanding majority in the National Assembly, hollowing out France's traditional parties and giving himself an astonishing platform to wield power and push through his agenda.

“It's sometimes lost in the conversation because it came after his win, but I would argue the parliamentary victory is much more stunning and transformational than the presidential one,” Haddad said. “Imagine Trump not only running as an independent but also running candidates everywhere in the country and now having a majority to govern in Congress.”


Macron conducted a testy news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris on May 29, 2017. (Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Trump, in contrast, has lurched from crisis to crisis. His legislative agenda has stalled, thanks to disagreements within his own party, and speculation is mounting over how long Republicans on Capitol Hill will stand by him. He remains historically unpopular and is doing little to reverse that trend or attract support beyond his base. What slim momentum he may have enjoyed after taking office seems to have vanished.

Of course, Macron still has a huge hill to climb at home. After charming everyone on the campaign trail, he has adopted a more icy pose in power. His government has sought legal action to crack down on leakers, sparking condemnation from French news media. He canceled the traditional Bastille Day interview with two TV anchors and delivered a State of the Union-style address last week, which some leftist parliamentarians boycotted over Macron's alleged imperiousness. His planned labor reforms may spark heated clashes with France's powerful unions.

But Macron seems far better positioned to fight than his American counterpart. He can still plausibly speak of transforming his country into a nation of “start-ups” and unleashing innovation, airy ambitions vaguely shared by Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Macron has backed up his agenda by reinvigorating French politics with skilled technocratic talent. Contrast that with the chaotic White House, convulsing amid a series of controversies surrounding Trump's family members, who many argue should be nowhere near the corridors of power.

Thus the visit to Paris presents a welcome diversion for Trump, allowing him to discuss cooperation against terrorism and bask in the annual display of French military splendor.

“It’s the 100th anniversary of the American entry into World War I — it’s a beautiful symbol,” said François Heisbourg, a former French national security adviser under presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, to my colleagues Jenna Johnson and James McAuley. “It’s also a reminder to Trump and to those in France that there’s a century of transatlantic history here, and that the not-so-subliminal history is quite strong.”

Many Western European leaders have directly and indirectly upbraided Trump for his seeming apathy toward institutions that have undergirded the transatlantic alliance. But Macron may attempt to use Trump's 27-hour spin through the French capital to bring the American president back into the fold.

“We don’t want [Trump] to isolate himself,” an adviser to Macron told Politico. “Our role is to have a restraining function on him.”

“Trump, bristling at German criticism, has repeatedly lashed out over Berlin’s trade and current account surpluses,” noted Politico's Nicholas Vinocur. “Which leaves Macron — who’s also been critical of Germany’s trade position, and who’s vowed to bring French defense spending up to NATO’s target of 2 percent of gross domestic product — as the obvious dance partner for the U.S. while Trump is in Europe.”

“It looks like Macron wants to emerge as the leader of a Europe that assumes its autonomy and seeks to speak to Washington on an equal footing,” Haddad said. Profound disagreements may not be overcome, but the French president will certainly avoid confrontation and look to start building “a constructive partnership.”

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