The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Trump and Macron’s meeting a showdown over the West?

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.

A couple of years ago, President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron were shaking up the presidential races in both countries as maverick outsiders. This week, the pair will meet in Washington for an official state visit, one that now represents a fascinating clash between two seemingly opposing poles of Western politics.

On the face of it, the two leaders could hardly be more different. Trump, 71, rode to power on a platform of right-wing populism that Macron — more than three decades his junior — emphatically rejects. The French president has become the standard-bearer of liberal centrism in the West, opposing protectionism, championing the fight against climate change and preaching the promise of a more integrated European Union. While Trump celebrates "antiglobalist" movements across the pond, Macron decries the "inward-looking nationalist selfishness" reshaping politics in various European countries.

"Nationalism will lead Europe into the abyss. We see authoritarianism rising all around us," Macron told a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, last week. "The response should not be authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy."

But while Macron frets about the myopia of the populists, he does not fully reject their agenda. Under his watch, authorities have embarked on a harsh crackdown on asylum seekers, and Macron himself has expressed sympathy for public anxieties over migration. Macron's supporters see his "radical centrism" as a more effective platform to address some of the same concerns that animate Trump and his voters.

"When they meet at the White House, Macron and Trump will be looking at the same issues from different, but not opposite, perspectives. As much as his American counterpart, the French president understands the populist mood sweeping both countries," wrote Paul Zajac and Benjamin Haddad, two French think-tankers based in Washington. "But Macron believes he should approach it with a different set of answers, while retaining an open and cooperative world order."

Meanwhile, Macron's critics — especially on the left — see him not as populist in establishment clothing but as a leader for the rich, bent on tightening his stranglehold on the French political scene. "Abroad, Macron is often viewed as a French Obama, a fresh face who uses his youthful energy to captivate audiences and urge action on climate change and other progressive policies," wrote my colleague James McAuley. "At home, he is widely seen as a sort of liberal strongman who has sought to curtail checks on his power — and may have some of the same governing tendencies as President Trump."

Ahead of the White House State Dinner, The Post's James McAuley explains how French President Emmanuel Macron's rapport with President Trump defies predictions. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Intriguingly, Macron and Trump have built up a conspicuously close relationship over the past year. Trump has no personal rapport with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and is kept at arm's length by British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose public reviles Trump and opposes him even visiting their nation.

But Macron has gone out of his way to cultivate Trump. The American president was his guest of honor at Bastille Day celebrations in Paris last year — an event Trump enjoyed so much that he launched plans for a military parade through Washington. During this week's visit, Macron will appeal once more to Trump's martial predilections, presenting him with an oak sapling that grew at the site of a World War I battle where U.S. Marines repelled a German offensive almost exactly a century ago.

Macron is also doing some pointed political outreach. Ahead of his arrival, he gave right-wing Fox News an exclusive interview in a bid to appeal to both the Republican establishment and Trump's base. "We are very much attached to the same values  … especially liberty and peace," Macron said when describing his "very special relationship" with Trump.

But for all the outward chumminess and subtle similarities, insiders stress that there is a profound political gulf between the two. “Macron is not the friend of Trump,” said a French official, speaking to my colleagues on condition of anonymity. “We don’t believe all this stuff about bromance, that they’re buddies.”

Macron is expected to confront Trump on his plans to disengage from the Syrian war, his denial of the threat of climate change, his moves to slap tariffs on key European exports and his desire to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran. "You cannot make a trade war with your allies," Macron told Fox News. "It’s too complicated. If you make war against everybody, you make trade war against China, trade war against Europe, war in Syria, war against Iran — come on — it doesn’t work. You need allies."

The Iran deal may be the most sensitive matter on the table. As my colleague Karen DeYoung reported, Macron's visit follows months of negotiations between French, German and British officials and American interlocutors in the State Department. The talks are aimed at coming up with a solution that allays some of Trump's concerns about the nuclear agreement without fundamentally altering it or giving the other signatories — Russia, China and Iran — the chance to cry foul.

Trump must decide what to do about the deal by May 12 — when he may decide to restore sanctions on Iran, an act which could effectively kill the deal and lead Iran to kick out inspectors and restart its uranium enrichment. That's a scenario Macron doggedly opposes; he and his European partners have repeatedly stressed that there are few better options to curb Tehran's nuclear program than the one that already exists. "I don't have any plan B," Macron told Fox News. "Let's present this framework because it's better than the sort of North Korean-type situation."

"Neither Macron nor the White House expect a final decision by Trump during the French president’s visit, officials from both countries said," wrote DeYoung. "For their part, the Europeans worry that the mercurial U.S. president, who railed against the deal during his presidential campaign and ever since, will ultimately decide to trash it even if his State Department recommends otherwise."

Such a decision by Trump could lead to the greatest strain yet on Washington's relations with its European allies. And it would present Macron — a suave foil to the often guileless Trump — with a golden opportunity to test his leadership on the world stage.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.