President Emmanuel Macron declared on the sidelines of the European Council meeting on April 11 that he would not support the start of EU-US trade negotiations as long as the United States stayed outside of the Paris Climate Agreement. Four days later, when this topic was discussed by the EU agriculture ministers, only the French representative voted “nay.” This gives rise to a question about whether Paris really feels a sincere anti-Americanism or has been forced to behave in this way because of the circumstances.
To date, Macron-Trump relations have passed through three stages.
The first stage began in mid-2017, when the French President received his US counterpart on the occasion of July 14 celebrations. For Macron, it was a time of hope. He had just assumed office and he expected he would establish a personal rapport with Donald Trump so that he could use it to his own advantage. He believed he would be able to become a savvy and influential interlocutor, if not Washington’s main European ally.
The beginning of stage two was marked by Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Washington in April 2018. He was mostly on his guard because the old problems still remained unsolved and the new ones (the threat of a US-EU trade war, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal) were piling up on top of them. Although outwardly the presidents were still best friends, the ontological rift between them was growing. One was committed to the America First principle, the other insisted on “strong multilateralism.”
Stage three that continues to this very day began in November 2018, when Donald Trump disregarded the Paris Peace Forum (with the exception of its official part dedicated to WWI) and then felt free to make several comments concerning Macron’s insufficient popularity in France. Moreover, he even hinted at his sympathy with the Yellow Vests movement. Such escapades did nothing but make the French leadership feel disappointed and angry.
So, French-US relations in the Macron-Trump format are a story of the two leaders losing rapport and becoming personally alienated. Disappointment, anger, frustration are the words that describe the sentiments prevailing today in the French-American dialogue (at least on the French side). But Paris, on the one hand, is unable and unwilling to break off all relations with the United States. At least a new withdrawal from NATO is certainly not on the agenda and Washington, as before, is perceived as the most important strategic ally. Moreover, Macron has never made disparaging remarks about the United States as a country and a culture. Interestingly, he is pro-active in using English, frequently enriching his native tongue with borrowed words, and insists that his team follow managerial practices modeled on those employed by US businesses and NGOs. On the other hand, French diplomacy has to watch Donald Trump meticulously destroy all the good things it has nurtured for so long. For example, both Airbus and Total have lost lucrative deals in Iran for fear of the US sanctions. The 2015 Climate Agreement is also a good example in this sense. What France sees as one of its principal diplomatic successes in recent years and a sign of its own global importance was for Donald Trump small change in the context of his effort to bolster up the US economy. Each unilateral decision approved by the White House is a sensitive blow to the prestige of France.
Hence most of the different attempts made by the French leadership to withstand the US pressure, including statements that they were building “European sovereignty,” steps to strengthen the EU defense dimension, or the “sudden” focus on European and French industries (aircraft-building, agriculture, etc.) that have to be protected against overseas rivalry. Incidentally, it is these intentions that have given Macron the reputation of a devout European, who is even prone to overdo this role. A case in point is the loneliness of the French delegation during the April 15 vote. But even if this has an element of “anti-Americanism,” it is a forced and circumspect one rather than intentional. Pushing away the United States too brusquely means being left one-on-one with China and its trade and economic might, something that both Paris and Brussels would hardly call the best of scenarios (although, frankly speaking, not the worst one, given the two countries’ reciprocal interest on the bilateral track). By being skeptical towards the current administration, Macron emphasizes the differences rather than the fundamental contradistinction between France and Europe, on the one hand, and America, on the other.
What attitude to all these disputes should be adopted in Russia? It seems that the best course is and will be to have no exaggerated expectations. As we know from history, when Charles de Gaulle exchanged dollars for gold in 1965 and withdrew his country from NATO’s military organization in 1966, while in parallel establishing better ties with the USSR, he did not wish to part with the United States forever either. His idea was just to take a more independent position within the Western camp. A somewhat similar situation is taking shape today. Emmanuel Macron’s “forced anti-Americanism” is unlikely to lead to a real divorce. Nor does it mean an automatic reorientation to Moscow (with which there is certainly some economic cooperation, albeit not devoid of sanction risks). The French president is playing several interconnected games on different chessboards, but the most important game for him is the one that involves himself, Europe and Donald Trump.