By Elias Weiss.
President Trump has escaped, sorry, ‘embarked’ on a whirlwind two-day visit to France to mark the 100th anniversary of the United States entering the First World War.
This comes, of course, after damning evidence surfaced that his oldest “high-quality person” son, Donald Trump Jr. had accepted a meeting with a Kremlin insider about compromising information on Hillary “What About Her Emails Tho” Rodham Clinton in Trump Tower – in the dog days of a presidential campaign – with the email subject title “Russia-Clinton – private and confidential”. Y’know, as one does.
Back in France, we can expect Trump to pay his respects today on the day of his arrival at the Suresnes American Cemetery in Hauts-de-Seine as well as the Escadrille Lafayette Memorial in Manus-la-Coquette. Trump will then join his host, French president Emmanuel Macron, who assured us “disagreements” would be “frankly” discussed at the Elysée Palace later in the day for a bilateral meeting and a press conference.
This year’s défilé du 14 Juillet will also see US soldiers march alongside their French counterparts to honour the 100th anniversary of the United States joining World War I. Both leaders will attend the annual 14 Juillet celebrations on the Champs-Elysée.
It’s a visit that’s been in the works for some time now. The invitation was first extended to the White House in September 2016: two months before Trump won the election. Macron reiterated the offer to Trump during their bilateral meeting at the NATO summit. (Canada’s own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also invited but declined to attend, one presumes because of the US governors’ summit taking place the very same day.)
Perhaps more surprising than the invitation itself (basic diplomatic courtesy) however is the fact that President Trump has accepted it so enthusiastically. For instance, the White House also had plans to visit America’s ‘closest ally’ Britain in the near future but those were apparently scuttled fearing protests (postponed till next year in fact.)
And it’s not as though Mr. Trump is ‘popular’ in France either: an Odoxa poll back in 2016 showed 76% of French respondents were “unhappy” with Trump’s electoral win. More than 82% found him “racist” while 75% percent thought of him as “dangerous”.
Logically, protests are to be expected – especially (but not solely) of the ALBA-loving, NATO-hating Jean-Luc Mélanchon variety. Adding to that, there’s risks of a terrorist attack – perhaps one similar to the one in Nice last year. Although Paris seems prepared for that eventuality: 3,500 police officers and gendarmes, as well as 2,500 firemen, will be in charge of protecting the défilé attended by President Trump. The event will be cordoned off with police cars to avoid ‘ram-raiding’ according to the Police chief.
So why did President Trump say yes to Paris but decided to put London on hold? Protests, sure, but perhaps the French seemed more welcoming to an administration who may feel the need to look like it can play well with others, especially the non despotic kind of others? Theresa May had been criticized for appearing too chummy with Trump. Macron afforded himself some credibility among his country(wo)men, having won the silly yet seemingly significant ‘Handshake Battle’ and launching his Make Our Planet Great Again master troll after the climate denying president of one of the largest contributors of CO2 decided to withdraw from the (rather conservative) Paris Agreement.
Or maybe Donald Trump is simply embracing the good ol’ lazy French caricature of the ugly, vulgar, arrogant, uncultured (I could go on) American nouveau riche social climber who believes money and power will buy him stature: why visit those losers over there in Britain dealing with Brexit and a minority government, when you can be wined and dined (or probably Coca-Cola’ed in his case) in the Eiffel tower’s opulent Jules Verne restaurant by (in Trump’s mind) a winner – and a military parade to boot?
Now that sounds like Donald’s kind of party.
However on the French side, the invitation hasn’t exactly been hyped as a Trump-centric visit per se; as the Elysée Palace spokesperson, Christophe Castaner, said during an interview with LCI: Trump isn’t really the star of the visit, America’s role in WWI is.
It would be naïve to buy this spin entirely though, much as I love history and strongly believe in the duty to remember. Monsieur Castaner himself added the visit was also a way to reach out to President Trump, arguing that “Emmanuel Macron wants to try to prevent the president of the United States from being isolated. He sometimes makes decisions that we disagree with, on climate change, for example,” adding “but we can do things: either you can say, ‘we’re not speaking because you haven’t been nice’ or we can reach out to him to keep him in the circle.”
Seeking to advance french interests, Macron wants (and needs) the US on his side on issues such as Syria, terrorism, and negotiating a privacy shield agreement. At the same time, Macron hopes to make his mark as a ‘strong’ world leader worthy of respect (something his predecessor, and former boss never managed to invoke.)
Inviting Trump on French territory is a strategy similar to the one Macron employed with Vladimir Putin shortly after becoming president back in May. A high-risk strategy that paid off handsomely at the time.
French foreign policy has always been forged in cold realism – and Macron is very much a continuation of that tradition: blowing hot and cold, depending on what your interests dictate. As many before him (including our own prime minister), the French president is trying to build what the French press has characterized as a ‘complicité stratégique’ (strategic chemistry) with Donald Trump, a way to exert some sort of influence on a man who is now famously known to be highly ‘inspired’ (read: kind of malleable) by the last person he talks to. Will it work? Well, as we eloquently say in France: bof (who knows).
Elias Weiss studies Neuroscience and Biotechnology at McGill University. A liberal and a passionate believer in evidence-based decision-making, Elias hails from British Columbia but is now a proud Montréaler and also a French citizen.Twitter: @