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Despite the upbeat characterization of France as the United States’ oldest ally—from the Marquis de Lafayette’s help in the American Revolution to France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty and up through the shared fight in two world wars—the U.S.-French relationship has always been complicated. During the Cold War, French President Charles de Gaulle sided with the United States when it mattered, as during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But he also clashed with U.S. leaders as he sought to assert French autonomy within NATO and position his country outside the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s free-market policies made many French cringe (they tended to overlook his successful efforts to win the Cold War). But his French counterpart, François Mitterrand, also stood up to the Soviet Union, memorably declaring in 1983, “The pacifists are in the West, but the missiles are in the East.” After U.S. President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, the United States’ popularity in France hit rock bottom. Things got so bad that a 2003 poll found that 33 percent of French hoped that the United States would lose to Saddam Hussein. It didn’t help that Americans had started calling the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and sporting “First Iraq, then France” bumper stickers on their cars. Yet U.S.-French relations survived the disagreement over Iraq, with French President Jacques Chirac successfully seeking Bush’s support for a joint effort to get Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005.
The election of Barack Obama certainly swayed French public opinion. By the summer of 2009, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, the United States’ favorability rating in France had soared to 75 percent (the highest score in Europe), up from 42 percent in 2003. But relations between Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were awkward. Sarkozy found his American counterpart cold, and Obama joked about Sarkozy’s looks and his fast speech. Tensions over Iran went deeper: the French were wary of Obama’s outstretched hand and pushed for harsher sanctions. The NATO intervention in Libya was another stumbling block, with Sarkozy frustrated by Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. bombers ten days into the operation.
Then came Donald Trump, a U.S. president like no other. During last fall’s U.S. campaign, France’s then president, the Socialist François Hollande, spoke for many of his compatriots when he said that Trump’s “excesses” made him want to “throw up.” On the right, Bruno Le Maire (who has since become France’s finance minister) called Trump “a dangerous man.” Days after Trump’s election, a survey found that 75 percent of French held a negative opinion of the incoming U.S. president. Most were convinced that he would damage U.S.-European relations and threaten world peace. Even half of the supporters of the far-right French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, opposed Trump, despite sharing many of his views on Islam, immigration, and trade.
Yet behind this widespread revulsion lies a diplomatic opportunity. With the United States looking inward and Trump having torn up the traditional foreign policy rule book, France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, is seeking to reinvigorate the European project as a way of restoring French leadership. French power is no substitute for American power, of course. But with the United States’ image, global role, and reliability newly uncertain, Europeans feel a void that someone must fill—and France thinks it should at least try to do just that.
France and the United States have historically offered up similar but competing messages to the world: “American exceptionalism” is matched by France’s claim of being “the birthplace of human rights.” As Sarkozy once quipped, the two countries “are separated by common values.” France and the United States may not always see eye to eye on policy, but they both stand for humanistic values harking back to the Enlightenment. Against that backdrop, Trump’s blunt abandonment of even the pretense of defending the liberal international order and its accompanying body of human rights conventions has marked a watershed.
Trump’s style is also anathema to the French. The view from Paris is that Trump is a vulgar plutocrat who came to office by pandering to the unsophisticated masses and who might leave office early in scandal. His foreign policy positions, in their view, alternate between 1930s-style isolationism and trigger-happy unilateralism. As tempting as it may be for the French to look down their noses at the United States, however, they know that their country is not immune to right-wing populism: in France’s presidential runoff in May, Le Pen received more than ten million votes, a third of the total.
France feels as much discomfort as it does smugness.
But in the wake of Macron’s decisive victory over Le Pen, the French have rightly felt a sense of pride for having slowed down, or perhaps even halted, the march of populism across Europe, especially when across the Atlantic, Trump’s America looks like something out of Ubu Roi, the nineteenth-century French satirical play about an obscene king. But anxieties persist, and with the destiny of the West seemingly at stake, France feels as much discomfort as it does smugness.
Still, to a certain degree, the country is adopting a wait-and-see approach to Trump. His election has not brought the French out on the streets. There have been no demonstrations with such slogans as Vive la France! À bas l’Amérique de Trump! (Long live France! Down with Trump’s America!). Nor have the French seized on Trump’s disregard for NATO as a pretext to revive past grudges against the alliance, which some French saw as a vehicle for American imperial domination. De Gaulle has long ago turned in his grave: no official in Paris wants to undo France’s 2009 return to NATO’s integrated military structure, which he had pulled out of in 1966. Nor has Trump’s presidency sparked a groundswell of hostility toward the United States as a whole. It’s his personality, not his country, that draws so much contempt. This is good news for any future U.S. president who decides to revive the transatlantic link.
To be sure, anti-Americanism hasn’t vanished from France. It’s still present on both extremes of the political spectrum. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the former Trotskyist who won nearly 20 percent of the vote in the first round of this year’s presidential election, loves to rant against U.S. policies while evincing little discomfort with those of various dictators. Le Pen, for her part, was seen sipping coffee in Trump Tower during her campaign (without meeting the man), and she did applaud his election (“Congratulations to the American people, free!” she tweeted). But her party’s nationalist ideology, as well as French opinion polls showing a deep dislike for Trump, made it hard for her to speak of the prospect of a Franco-American love fest. Instead, she chose to accentuate her fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Setting aside these populists, most French distinguish between Trump, whom they see as an aberration, and the United States’ institutions, on which their hopes still rest.
But even though many French look back at Obama with nostalgia—so much so that Macron sought out and received his endorsement—he was not universally loved inside the Élysée Palace, the official home of France’s president. In fact, it is hard to overstate how livid the French foreign policy establishment was with Obama’s hesitant decision-making style, particularly when it came to Syria. The paroxysm came in August 2013, when Obama, having warned Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that the use of chemical weapons would represent the crossing of a “redline,” prepared to enforce it with an air strike when Assad did just that. Rafale fighter jets were ready to take off for a joint U.S.-French operation that French officials thought would set the stage for a major shift in the Syrian civil war and possibly lead Assad to accept a negotiated settlement. But within hours, Obama made a massive U-turn, declining to intervene and thus failing to carry out his own threat.
As the ensuing years have made clear, the prolongation of the Syrian conflict has not only produced untold human suffering; it has also inflicted severe damage on Europe, with the resulting terrorism and migration fueling the rise of populism. It was that moment in 2013, and not Trump’s election, that made Paris realize that it could no longer count on its ally across the Atlantic. Obama, with his advertised “pivot” to Asia, was already seen as aloof from Europe, but now France’s decision-makers learned that the White House could demonstrate total disregard for the objections of a close ally, and that it could go back on its word in ways that harmed European interests and international norms.
Macron was a senior aide to Hollande in the Élysée when these events unfolded, and they left deep traces on his own thinking about Europe and the United States. In an interview in June, he drew an explicit link between Obama’s turnaround in Syria and Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, which shattered Europe’s security architecture. “When you draw redlines, if you don’t know how to get them respected, you decide to be weak,” he said. He went on: “What emboldened Putin to act in other theaters of operation? The fact that he saw he had in front of him people who had redlines but didn’t enforce them.”
Immediately after Macron took office, fresh from an electoral battle against political forces that Trump seemed ready to promote, he made it clear he would not submit to the U.S. president. At a NATO meeting on May 25, Macron managed to fend off Trump’s apparent attempt to dominate him during a handshake. He wasted no time in capitalizing on the episode. “That’s how you ensure you are respected,” he told reporters. “You have to show you won’t make small concessions—not even symbolic ones.” Macron went on to deliver a remarkable video address to the American people in response to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, calling on U.S. scientists, engineers, and “responsible citizens” to “find a second homeland” in France. And he launched a campaign to “make the planet great again” that gained traction on social media. For a moment, it seemed as if Macron would single-handedly take on Trump and cast himself as the leader of Western liberalism.
In Paris, foreign policy grandees took to the television studios, barely hiding their excitement: now was the time to demonstrate a Gaullist independence, they claimed. Dominique de Villepin, a former foreign minister and former prime minister, argued that France needed to be put back on its traditional track of “mediating” and “balancing” between powers. A debate had been raging in Parisian circles about whether Hollande—and, before him, Sarkozy—had been too “Atlanticist” in orientation, too dangerously aligned with the United States. This hardly matched the facts, considering the bilateral tensions that existed under both Sarkozy and Hollande. But Macron, it was thought, would offer a welcome course correction.
But those who hoped for a full-on clash with the United States would be disappointed. Macron, it turns out, has recognized that anti-Trumpism can hardly serve as the animating idea behind French foreign policy. He has chosen his words carefully, eager to preserve relations with the White House. Unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has publicly confronted Trump over his lack of commitment to Western values, Macron has aimed narrowly—for instance, criticizing the Trump administration’s stance on climate change rather than declaring, as Merkel did, that the United States can no longer be relied on. In the run-up to the federal election in Germany in September, Merkel has no doubt been aware of the risks of appearing to agree with Trump on anything. Macron is much less constrained. In May, after meeting with Trump at the G-7 summit, he said that despite their differences, he found Trump “pragmatic” and “someone who listens and who is willing to work.” Macron even went so far as to invite Trump to this year’s Bastille Day festivities in Paris. Macron’s team framed the gesture as aimed at honoring the United States’ long-standing role in Europe, but it was hard not to see it as an attempt to generate good chemistry with Trump.
For Macron, antagonizing the new U.S. leader simply carries too many downsides.
For Macron, antagonizing the new U.S. leader simply carries too many downsides—above all, the prospect of jeopardizing cooperation on counterterrorism. French officials see national security as paramount. For years, France has been positioning itself as the United States’ most active European ally when it comes to counterterrorism, and since the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and the 2016 one in Nice, that has proved truer than ever. It’s no mystery why: with its constrained defense resources, France can ill afford to dispense with U.S. help in the fight against the Islamic State (or ISIS) and other terrorist groups, whether in the Middle East or the Sahel. Trump’s election will not change the centrality of counterterrorism in the relationship. Indeed, Macron has declared counterterrorism his “number one priority,” and his first meeting with Trump centered on the fight against ISIS. But what Trump’s election will likely change is the way France manages the relationship. Like other U.S. allies, France is struggling to navigate an increasingly indecipherable Washington power structure.
Instead of seeing Trump’s election as a reason to completely distance France from its ally across the Atlantic, Macron is looking for ways to boost France’s standing in its immediate neighborhood. French influence in Europe has waned in recent years, in turn weakening France’s position on the broader international stage. During the Obama era, it was Germany that served as the United States’ preferred interlocutor. From a French standpoint, that was a highly unbalanced arrangement. Ever since its creation 60 years ago, the European project has been seen in Paris as an amplifier of French influence, not an instrument of its marginalization. Remember that it was only after France lost its empire in 1962, when it withdrew from Algeria, that de Gaulle fully committed to a common European endeavour. (He signed a friendship treaty with West Germany the very next year.)
In an important campaign speech in March, Macron described his vision of France’s place in the shifting global landscape:
To those who have become accustomed to waiting for solutions to their problems from the other side of the Atlantic, I believe that developments in U.S. foreign policy clearly show that we have changed eras. Of course, the alliance with the United States is and remains fundamental, at the strategic, intelligence, and operational levels. . . . But for now, the Americans seem to want to focus on themselves. The current unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy is calling into question some of our points of reference, while a wide space has been left open for the politics of power and fait accompli, in Europe, in the Middle East, and also in Asia. So it is up to us to act where our interests are at stake and to find partners with whom we will work to substitute stability and peace for chaos and violence.
That Macron hasn’t publicly repeated those thoughts in so many words since his election does not mean they have changed: rather, he recognizes the diplomatic constraints of being in office. But while somewhat toning down his rhetoric, he has already started putting some of these ideas into practice.
The centerpiece of Macron’s plan for Europe is to usher in a new era of continental defense cooperation. The French president has supported the creation of a “European defense fund” to pay for continent-wide projects, and he envisages ad hoc European coalitions for military interventions in and outside Europe. On this front, the French think it’s only natural that their country take the lead. The United Kingdom has become obsessively inward-looking—almost a disappearing act, to France’s deep regret. In continental Europe, France remains the top military power, and the only one with a nuclear deterrent and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. For historical reasons, Germany is still reluctant to expand its military and put soldiers in harm’s way. France has no such qualms, and its political culture allows the president to act militarily without much parliamentary oversight.
But Macron recognizes that France cannot go it alone, and that Germany is key to what he likes to describe as a “European renaissance.” His team is considering taking steps toward deeper integration of the eurozone, although much will depend on the outcome of the German election, as well as on Macron’s capacity to implement economic reforms at home. In the future, expect Macron to showcase his closeness to Merkel, as when he went to great lengths to support the chancellor’s refugee policies—ones Trump has repeatedly castigated. Reviving the so-called Franco-German engine is crucial to the continent’s newfound sense of self-confidence, momentum that Macron wants to capitalize on.
Macron has also called for reform of the European Union, which he sees as ineffective and out of touch. In his view, it must build better defenses against terrorism, Russian aggression, and abusive trade practices (including China’s). Macron had drawn up this wish list well before the U.S. election, but Trump’s maverick streak has made those steps even more urgent, because Europe now questions the United States’ traditional security guarantees and lacks a reliable partner on free trade.
Trump is arguably as much an opportunity for Europe as he is a problem. But those hoping that Europe will weather the United States’ turn inward easily should manage their expectations. For starters, Europe can hardly fill the shoes of the United States. There is no such thing as a European nuclear umbrella on offer, and talk of a “European army” remains lofty. Rather, Europeans will take more modest steps, such as pooling their resources for the joint procurement of military equipment. Besides, there are powerful historical hang-ups that haven’t entirely disappeared. Macron knows well that it was France, not Germany, that rejected plans for a European army in 1954.
Given all the threats to Europe today—Brexit, Putin’s aggression, Turkey’s authoritarian turn, and the specter of terrorism—Europe can only try to mitigate some of the consequences of the Trump phenomenon. On this, Macron would surely agree with how one former Obama administration official framed things for me: “Europe needs to hold the fort for as long as Trump remains in office.”
Frans Timmermans, the deputy leader of the European Commission, once said that there are two kinds of countries in Europe: “small ones, and those who don’t know yet they are small.” The French would like to renew their country’s sense of grandeur, but France is no superpower. The contrast with Trump may make them feel good about themselves. But as Macron reflects on what he has called “the strategic void” left by the United States’ retreat, he knows that he has no other option but to address Europe’s weaknesses if he wants France’s voice to matter. In other words, he must hedge against “America first” by focusing on Europe first.