The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After hugging Trump, Macron tears down Trumpism

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Before French President Emmanuel Macron delivered an address at a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, the headlines about his trip to Washington centered on his apparent “bromance” with President Trump. On Tuesday, the duo engaged in a series of physical embraces and celebrated both their personal rapport as well as the “unbreakable” bonds between France and the United States.

But on Wednesday, as his three-day visit drew to a close, Macron shifted the story dramatically. In his speech to American lawmakers, he offered a comprehensive rejection of the main tenets of Trumpism, excoriating “extreme nationalism” and protectionism, championing climate-change science and defending the international liberal order. “You can play with anger and fear for a time,” Macron said, alluding to the themes that fuel right-wing nationalist movements in the West, “but they do not construct anything.”

Macron went on, urging his American audience to look beyond borders and walls. “We can choose isolationism. But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world,” he said. And he bristled at the rise of autocrats and illiberal democrats, which include some leaders favored by Trump: “I don’t share fascination for new strong powers and the illusion of nationalism,” he said.

Macron also cast a skeptical eye at Trump's efforts to slap tariffs on imports from allies and undermine existing free-trade deals. To Macron, this bid to boost American manufacturing jobs at home — combined with Trump's dismissals of climate change as a “hoax” — was counterproductive and shortsighted.

“Some people think that securing current industries and their jobs is more urgent than transforming our economies to meet the challenge of global change,” he said. In the final analysis, he suggested, the impasse cannot last. “In the long run, we will have to face the same realities,” he said. “We’re just citizens of the same planet.”

There's no “Planet B,” Macron pointed out, echoing an earlier argument he made about there being no “Plan B” for the Iran nuclear deal that Trump wants to dismantle. Then he drew thunderous applause from Democrats with this confident declaration: “I am sure one day the United States will come back and join the Paris agreement.”

Of course, Macron also played the role of the proud transatlantic ally. He hailed the historic French-American friendship and the two countries' shared sacrifices from World War II to the current fight against Islamist militant groups in various parts of the world. And he predictably appealed to a love of liberty and the many other cultural connections between the two countries.

Macron also summoned legacies largely ignored by Trump. He used his moment in Congress to celebrate the work of James Baldwin, Richard Wright and other icons of the civil rights struggle in America. Not long thereafter, he toured the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights hero who branded Trump a “racist” earlier this year.

“Human rights, the rights of minorities and shared liberty are the true answers to the disorder of the world,” Macron said to Congress. Meanwhile, across the street at the Supreme Court, the Trump administration pressed its case to impose blanket travel bans on certain Muslim-majority countries.

Emmanuel Macron's speech to a joint meeting of Congress April 25 highlighted at least 10 key differences between the French president and President Trump. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Indeed, while Macron launched pointed barbs at the Trump administration, he sought to flatter American egos. There are few things Washington officialdom loves to discuss more than the importance of American leadership in the world. Macron did not disappoint. He reminded Democrats and Republicans that the nuclear deal Congress approved in 2015 was worth defending, and that the alternatives — a confrontation that may lead to war with Iran — would “replicate past mistakes.”

He also told his audience of the importance of the world order that “you built,” pointing to the institutions and international norms developed after World War II. “The United States is the one who invented this multilateralism,” Macron said, invoking a term explicitly decried by Trump officials.

“You are the one now who has to help preserve and reinvent it,” he added, calling on Washington to help build a new world order “based on a more effective, accountable, and results-oriented multilateralism.”

What that looks like in practice is less clear, nor is it certain that Macron's efforts (and those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who arrives in Washington on Thursday) to dissuade Trump from scuttling the Iran deal will work. And so Macron used the weighty moment to frame himself in opposition to the White House before returning to Europe, where he faces tough political tests both at home and in Brussels.

Macron “solidified his standing as leader of the West (to the extent there still is a West) by his call today before Congress for an updated liberal world order to meet regional, global challenges,” tweeted Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a doyen of the Washington policy establishment. “His problem is a lack of partners in Europe and here in U.S.”

“The most likely result is that the American president won’t pay attention to what Macron was trying to say — indeed, that he won’t even understand that he has been so openly challenged,” wrote Post columnist Anne Applebaum. “And that may have been the point, for Macron’s speech will be perfectly understood in France, in Europe, and even in the United States (at least outside the White House).”

Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, an inveterate Atlanticist, echoed the sentiments of many in her milieu with a tweeted jab at Trump: “It has been too long since a President delivered a speech in Washington about the need to defend democracy and support international cooperation.”

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