The Iran nuclear deal has given Macron his moment in the sun

The president’s diplomatic footwork aims to make France America’s closest ally in Europe, unseating German Chancellor Angela Merkel, writes Alan Philps

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron hold a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 24, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Ludovic MARIN
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Despite the difference in their ages and world view, President Emmanuel Macron of France has spared no effort in creating a close bond with Donald Trump. He quickly understood that the US President, with his scepticism about traditional allies, required an investment of personal charm if the transatlantic relationship was going to survive.

He invited Mr Trump to attend France's annual Bastille Day military parade on July 14 last year, which pleased Mr Trump so much that he asked his aides to organise a similar display in Washington. The two presidential couples dined in a glitzy restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, an experience designed to please a man who lives in his own gilded tower.

Mr Macron has been rewarded with a state visit to Washington and has stepped up the flattery, describing the "special relationship" – a term previously used about the US and Britain – between two maverick political outsiders.

Mr Macron's diplomatic footwork is aimed at making France America's closest ally in Europe, unseating the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was Washington's go-to politician in the Obama era.

Apart from her difficulties in creating a governing coalition, Mrs Merkel alienated Mr Trump by declaring after his election victory that she would only work with him on the basis of German values. Mr Macron, by contrast, has not sought the moral high ground, speaking of differences between Europe and the US as discreet issues which can all be ironed out.

The effect in their personal chemistry is clear: when the chancellor last visited Washington (she is due to return later this week on a working visit) Mr Trump could not bring himself to shake her hand for the cameras. On Tuesday Mr Trump picked a tiny spot of dandruff (or was it lint?) from Mr Macron’s lapel to play up his bond with the “perfect” French leader.

Mr Macron has now become the Tony Blair of the new era, a role made vacant by Britain’s diplomatic death spiral after voting to leave the European Union two years ago. The position is fraught with risk and the shadow of Mr Blair hangs over him in Washington.

Mr Blair decided to stick close to then president George W Bush, despite their belonging to opposite poles of the political spectrum, believing he could moderate the Texan’s harsher instincts. This led to Britain joining in the US invasion of Iraq, which has ruined his reputation at home, although he still has a loyal following abroad.

Mr Macron has set himself the task of persuading Trump's White House not to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, denounced by the president as the "worst deal ever".  He is demanding that the European signatories to the deal – Britain, France and Germany – find a way to "fix" it by the May 12 deadline.

In particular, Mr Trump argues that by focusing exclusively on the nuclear issue, the deal has given Iran a free hand to build ballistic missiles and to engage in military adventures across the region. The easing of some limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment in the 2020s – which is permitted under the deal – is seen as enabling Tehran to create a strategic weapon in short order.

Mr Macron, meanwhile, argues that for all its faults, the deal is preventing Tehran from building a nuclear weapon and nothing better is on offer. Instead of opening the deal for renegotiation, which he says is a non-starter, Mr Macron has proposed a follow-on deal to address the missile issues and the so-called “sunset clauses” which ease some restrictions on Iran.

Mr Trump has not ruled out a follow-on arrangement but it is far from certain that Iran would be willing to follow Mr Macron’s playbook. It believes that Washington is already in breach of the deal by using the threat of sanctions to prevent the normalisation of trade.

Although Mr Trump needs to look tough, it is possible he could delay his decision to allow his nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo – a fierce anti-Iran hawk – to take office.

If the US ends its participation in the deal, Iran has said it will withdraw too but it might make more sense for it to remain, thus entrenching a split in the international community between Washington on the one side and the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese on the other.

That would be a blow to Mr Macron. As the French political scientist Thomas Guenole has pointed out, the French public and media are keen on their presidents projecting France as a great power on the world stage so Mr Macron’s flattery is unlikely to damage him. But he would suffer if he got too little in return for his schmoozing.

The history of Europeans trying to influence policy in Washington teaches one lesson: the Europeans may whisper in the president’s ear but the Americans do what they want. This was humiliatingly made clear to Britain in 2003 when the then US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said it was unclear if British troops would take part in the Iraq war, a subject of huge political importance in London but – as he let slip – of little consequence in Washington.

Ultimately, it makes sense to see Washington as a stage on which European politicians perform before their home audiences. Mr Blair set out to steal the clothes of the Conservatives, hitherto the loudest proponents of the “special relationship” with the US, which he did with great success until he was undone by Iraq.

This is Mr Macron's moment in the sun. He might persuade Mr Trump to see things his way on Iran, or he may fail. But as Nathalie Nougayrede, the former editor of Le Monde, has written, the fact that he is playing a weak European hand shrewdly in Washington may give him the international stature and authority to pursue his real ambition – to lead the revitalisation of Europe in ways which clash with the instincts of the German public and political class.