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Why Trump’s explosive claim that Macron wants a European military ‘to protect itself from the U.S.’ is so misleading

President Trump is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Saturday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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PARIS — For the second time, President Trump has repeated the false claim that French President Emmanuel Macron called for a European army to protect the continent against the United States. Macron never said any such thing.

“Emmanuel Macron suggests building its [sic] own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday morning. “But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two - How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!”

The remark came on a particularly solemn day in France, the three-year anniversary of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed in a coordinated assault by terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State. It was the bloodiest attack on French soil since World War II.

Tuesday’s comment echoed Trump’s earlier statement, which he made as Air Force One was arriving in France on Friday evening:

“President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia. Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Trump’s interpretation of Macron’s remarks is factually misleading and comes from an interview Macron gave to France’s Europe 1 radio several days before Trump’s arrival. What Macron said has been largely echoed by European Union leaders for months now and in fact mimics the same demand Trump has long made: Europe needs to stop relying on the United States for its own defense.

“I believe in the project of a sovereign Europe. We won’t protect Europe if we don’t decide to have a true European army. In front of Russia, which is at our borders and which can be threatening, I would like to start a security dialogue with Russia, which is a country I respect and which is European,” Macron told Europe 1.

“We have to have a Europe that can defend itself alone — and without only relying on the United States — in a more sovereign manner,” he added.

Macron’s demands for a European army were met with skepticism across Europe this week, but not for the same reasons to which Trump objected. Though some E.U. members have multinational brigades or share equipment to save costs, European national constitutions fundamentally differ on the circumstances of military operations. Germany’s post-World War II constitution, for instance, has restricted military operations far more than is the case in contemporary Britain or France, countries that have participated in U.S. strikes against Syria’s Assad regime after a chemical weapons attack this year. German forces, however, would have been unable to intervene for constitutional reasons.

While demands for a European army are unlikely to move ahead anytime soon given those challenges, Macron’s broader point that Europe needs to become less dependent on the United States is not new. Last summer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel similarly said Europe “really must take our fate into our own hands,” even though she was not explicitly discussing military issues.

Merkel said Europe’s move toward self-reliance should be carried out “of course in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever that works.” Germany, for instance, hosts some of the biggest U.S. military bases outside the United States and has no intention of forcing them out.

Like Merkel, Macron has repeatedly emphasized Europe’s willingness to cooperate with the United States under Trump, even as those ties are under mounting pressure.

Rushing to Trump’s defense on social media, some pointed to another Macron quote in the same interview this week. Europe has to protect itself “with respect to China, Russia and even the United States,” he said. But in that portion of his radio interview, Macron was actually referring to cybersecurity matters and fading multilateralism. Trump essentially combined two parts of the same interview, which was initially mistranslated in some English-language reports.

There has been some scrutiny of U.S. cybersecurity operations in Europe for years, especially after it was revealed in 2014 that the National Security Agency intercepted calls by Merkel and had access to sensitive communications. From a European perspective, not protecting itself from possible U.S. spying operations would appear rather naive, given those disclosures.

In any case, this has been a difficult week for Macron in comments made to journalists. The ambiguities of his statements have dominated the headlines.

Speaking to reporters during one of the World War I commemoration events, the French president launched a bitter national debate on Wednesday by declaring that Philippe Pétain, the leader of France’s infamous Vichy government during World War II, was a “great soldier” in World War I and that it was “legitimate” to honor marshals like him. Following outrage from Jewish groups and public commentators, the Elysee Palace was forced on the defensive, insisting there would be no formal commemoration of Pétain.

With his remarks on U.S.-European ties this week, however, Macron is far from being the only leader in Europe who has blamed the United States for some of the fading multilateralism in recent years. Trump has threatened the E.U. with tariffs, withdrawn from an Iran deal Europe says it will uphold and repeatedly raised questions over the future of NATO — pledges that have drawn the ire of capitals across the continent.

Macron’s comments reflected that divide, but there’s no reason the United States should be worried about a looming European invasion.

This article was originally published on Nov. 10 and then updated on Nov. 13 to reflect the president’s additional tweets on the subject.

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