Apr 23, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Trump state visit: What's in it for Macron

Macron and his wife Brigitte visit the Lincoln Memorial after arriving in Washington. Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

Fresh off a Fox News interview in which he described President Trump as a fellow "maverick," French President Emmanuel Macron arrived today for the first state visit of the Trump presidency. He and his wife Brigitte dined on Dover sole, lemon ricotta agnolotti, and chocolate soufflé with the Trumps this evening at Mount Vernon.

The visit provides Trump with an opportunity to showcase his strong relationship with a key ally, and perhaps snag a couple positive news cycles. But given Trump's widespread disapproval in France, what's in it for Macron?

  • Major breakthroughs seem unlikely. “Ideally he’d get a long-term U.S. exemption from tariffs, an agreement to remain in the Iran deal and a long-term strategy in Syria,” says Jeff Lightfoot of the Atlantic Council. "While they’re at it, they might as well try to get a cure for cancer.”
  • Prestige is one factor, and this solidifies Macron’s status as Trump's key interlocutor in Europe. German chancellor Angela Merkel, who played that role under Barack Obama, will arrive with less pomp and circumstance later this week.
  • But there’s a broader message, says Lightfoot: “France is back,” as a leader in Europe and a key player on the world stage.

The visit comes nearly a year into Macron’s presidency, and as he trudges through a thicket of difficulties on other fronts.

  1. At home: Macron has undertaken a whirlwind of reforms to “modernize” France. While he’s moved remarkably quickly, his popularity has fallen sharply and he’s now engaged in a high-stakes battle with railway workers that could stall his economic agenda.
  2. In Europe: Macron wants to build a more centralized and ambitious E.U., but he’s swimming against the tide at a time when Germany’s appetite for such reforms has decreased and Euroskeptics are surging around the continent.

Overseas, though, Macron is flying high. “He has revitalized the way France is viewed around the world,” says Lightfoot.

  • French voters are “very pragmatic,” says Celia Belin of the Brookings Institution. “The only thing they’re asking is, even if Macron can’t change Trump’s mind, he needs to state their differences and not appear as an enabler.”
  • Macron has taken a similar approach with other leaders. “He wants to talk to everybody — Trump, Putin, Xi, Erdogan,” says Belin, and show he can handle them head on.
  • And while Macron is an ardent defender of liberalism and democracy within Europe, he can sometimes speak the language of the strongman. He has repeatedly compared himself to a king, saying in a Vanity Fair interview that a strong leader is needed “to decide for the country” and telling Der Spiegel, “The French want to elect a king, but they would like to be able to overthrow him whenever they want.”

Between the lines: Francois Hollande, Macron’s predecessor and former mentor, writes that he “is certain that reality graciously bends to his will as soon as he expresses it.” That sentiment could describe either president at tonight's dinner.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the leaders dined on Dover Sole and lemon ricotta agnolotti this evening. A previous version of this post said they dined on “rack of spring lamb” and “burnt cipollini soubise,” which they will be having at the state dinner tomorrow.

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