PARIS — Among the memorable images captured during French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Washington is a series showing President Trump leading Macron along the White House colonnade, their hands clasped.
In France, the photographs were hardly seen as the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Those who oppose Macron’s efforts to engage with Trump saw a child following his father on the first day of school.
Perhaps predictably, the most outspoken critiques came from the political fringes. “The new world: Atlantic version,” France’s Communist Party tweeted. “Following, illustrated in an image,” wrote Florian Philippot, a prominent member of France’s far right.
But disdain for Trump is not a fringe phenomenon in France, where opinion polls consistently show that the U.S. president is deeply unpopular — much more so than Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping. The general sense is that Macron is playing with fire, even if he can establish himself, and France, as Trump’s leading interlocutor in a Europe that has largely remained at arm’s length.
Some in France have also started using the evidence of the increasingly tactile relationship between Macron and Trump to point out what they consider to be uncomfortable similarities between the two presidents, especially on immigration.
On Monday, the same day Macron arrived in Washington, France’s National Assembly passed his hotly contested migration bill, which would, among other things, allow authorities to imprison undocumented immigrants for one year and double the amount of time during which asylum seekers could be detained by police, from 45 days to 90.
In the aftermath of the vote, one parliamentary deputy from Macron’s party went so far as to announce he would be leaving the president’s centrist faction.
Macron’s immigration policy had already alienated some of his supporters in recent months.
In January, the French magazine L’Obs, formerly known as Le Nouvel Observateur, which was favorable to his candidacy throughout his presidential run, placed him on the cover behind a barbed-wire fence: “Welcome to the Country of Human Rights,” the headline said.
Macron’s perceived similarity with Trump on the issue has only fanned the flames of outrage.
In a bilateral news conference on Tuesday, Trump underscored these apparent points of intersection, in remarks about “uncontrolled migration.”
“I know that you face similar challenges, and, Mr. President, I admire the leadership you have shown in addressing them in a very honest and direct fashion — and not always popular,” Trump said, addressing Macron.
“Both of our elections owe much of the success to the desire of everyday citizens to be heard, to be listened to and to have control over their own nations and their own futures,” Trump said.
These compliments did not play well in France, where Macron — especially in comparison with Marine Le Pen, his far-right opponent in last year’s election — was largely expected to assume a softer line on the migration question.
“Emmanuel Macron received the congratulations of Donald Trump in person on his migration policies,” announced La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”), a prominent left-wing faction, via Twitter. “Support that speaks volumes . . . ”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise, added: “Lamentable alignment of Macron with Trump’s line.”
In an informal town hall with students at George Washington University on Wednesday, Macron was asked about his migrant policy. He defended his views by emphasizing the difference between asylum seekers and economic migrants.
“I want my country to welcome the maximum number of people entitled to be accepted, when they are at risk in their country,” Macron said in English, sleeves rolled up. “Ninety percent of people coming from Africa are not coming to Europe because of these kind of political risks — they are coming from economic risks. You cannot accept everybody. That’s not a sustainable burden for French society.”
McAuley reported from Washington.