Macron meets Trump with 'Jupiter' in the ascendant

French president has emerged as the most authoritative voice in Europe after less than a year in office

French President Emmanuel Macron waits for the arrival of Senegalese President Macky Sall at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
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As French unions and students confront the government in a show of strength to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the rebellious Paris Spring, the target of their anger, President Emmanuel Macron, is enjoying remarkable success on the world stage.

Unbowed by poor poll ratings, the youngest president in French history has quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with, reminding many observers of his audacious pre-election declaration that he would rule like Jupiter, the king of ancient Roman gods.

Talk of 40-year-old Mr Macron overtaking the US president Donald Trump and German chancellor Angela Merkel as “leader of the free world” may be premature.

But during a three-day visit to Washington starting on Monday, Mr Macron will have a chance to shine in a way French heads of state rarely do.

On the agenda when Mr Macron meets Mr Trump will be the sensitive issues of Iran, Syria and Russia, protectionist US moves on global trade and plans to relocate the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

In media, diplomatic and political circles around the world, eyes will be focused on how Mr Macron performs.

Almost a year into his presidential term, he probably has reason for quiet satisfaction.

Mr Macron comfortably defeated the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen in the decisive second round of last year’s presidential elections.

He seems determined to see through radical reform of the French railway system in the face of fierce union resistance, and shows little sign of bowing to opponents of other planned changes, from university admissions procedures to the judiciary.

From the influential US news magazine Time to serious commentators in Europe, Mr Macron has admirers galore.

He was only seven months into his presidency when Time called him Europe's "boy wonder".

More recently, Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle described him as a “young, charismatic politician” who had shot to political stardom and was gradually replacing Mrs Merkel as Europe’s most important political figure.

Mr Macron has also demonstrated an ability to strike a rapport with other world leaders, even when they have serious differences of opinion.

It undoubtedly helps that unlike most French political leaders, he speaks excellent English.

But despite having been publicly supported in his presidential campaign by Barack Obama, Mr Macron appears to have forged a useful working relationship with Mr Trump and speaks to him regularly by telephone.

“We disagree on several topics,” the French president said in a BBC interview earlier this year. “I’m always extremely direct and frank and he is too. Sometimes I manage to convince him, sometimes I fail.”

They differ sharply on Israel, Mr Macron describing the US decision on moving its embassy to Jerusalem as a “mistake”. But they agreed on the need for air strikes by the US, Britain and France in response to Bashar Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in Syria.

Whether Mr Macron can convince Mr Trump on any of the other key topics under discussion — and in particular France’s belief, not shared by the US president, that the 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is worth preserving — remains to be seen. French officials are said to be pessimistic, while confident their president will hold his own in the talks.


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Closer to home, Mr Macron has increasingly come to be seen as a Europe’s most authoritative head of state, aided to some extent by the electoral setbacks and political crises that have weakened Mrs Merkel and Britain’s prime minister Theresa May.

Mr Macron has made EU unity a keynote issue, arguing against a retreat into nationalism and calling for the union to reassert itself as a force for liberal democracy. “In the face of authoritarianism, the response is not authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy,” he told the European parliament this month.

He was also disdainful of Brexit, saying the best way for Britain to maintain close relations with the EU was by being a member.

French presidents typically take office with promises of sweeping change only to buckle when the clamour from the street grows loud and threatening.

So far, despite disruptive rail and air strikes and student blockades of universities, with militants set on repeating the mass protests that paralysed France in the spring of 1968, Mr Macron has refused to budge.

Secretary-general of the CGT union Philippe Martinez, 2nd right, takes the streets during a demonstration in support of the French railway employees, in Paris, France, April 19, 2018. Thousands of people are expected to march in protest at French President Emmanuel Macron's reforms as rail strikes and student protests continue to shake the country. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
The secretary general of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, third from left, joins a demonstration in Paris against President Emmanuel Macron's reforms on April 19, 2018. Francois Mori / AP Photo

Assessing his first year in office for France’s respected Institut Montaigne think tank, a leading French businessman, Henri de Castries, welcomed Mr Macron’s determination to undertake “major reforms that France had been needing for a long, long time”.

Mr de Castries, who is the institute’s president, says his resolve and pro-European agenda are unambiguous, contrasting strikingly with “political instability prevailing elsewhere in Europe”.

Entitled "Macron — the 12 months of Jupiter", the study also examines the president’s developing relationship with the White House.

“Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump could not be more different,” says the think tank’s co-founder, Dominique Moisi. “However, in this encounter of two egos, a genuine mutual fascination is developing, each president believing that his counterpart can be charmed.”

For observers on both sides of the Atlantic, the coming days may offer clues on whether this mutual charm offensive can lead to meaningful agreement on some the toughest issues facing the world.


Read more: Macron and Trump's bromance stems from a mutual love of personality politics