France, the US, and Emmanuel Macron
Historically, the United States and France have had a love-hate relationship.
One can argue that royalist France won the Revolutionary War for the United States with its contributions of money, combat troops, and a fleet that prevented evacuation of British troops at Yorktown.
But royalist France disappeared under the guillotine, and the newborn United States was commendably wise in avoiding “foreign entanglements” and not supporting French revolutionaries.
Subsequently, the United States benefited from Napoleon’s decision to sell lands to President Thomas Jefferson for a pittance, in a deal known as the Louisiana Purchase, which opened the continent to U.S. domination.
And France adroitly avoided interference in the U.S. Civil War (in contrast to England, which allowed Confederates to build commerce raiders).
In the 20th century, the United States twice saved France from German invasion. By entering World War I in 1917, a U.S. officer proclaimed “Lafayette, we are here” (a quote falsely attributed to Gen. John Pershing) when arriving with U.S. forces that turned the tide against Germany.
Again, in 1944, U.S.-led forces liberated France from German occupation, while enduring Charles DeGaulle’s pretentions of having been responsible for the victory—and grudging gratitude, at best.
DeGaulle defined “thorn in the side” by withdrawing from the military component of NATO (forcing removal of all NATO forces from France) in 1966 when Washington would not share nuclear weapons information with it on the same level as Britain.
France, however, did join the 1991 U.N.-endorsed effort to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, contributing an armor division to the combat forces. But Paris declined to participate in the 2003 Coalition of the Willing that ousted Saddam from Iraq in search of illusory weapons of mass destruction.
Paris–Washington relations over the last 20 years have been correct rather than warm. The French have been eurocentric, attempting to counter German domination of the European Union and urging London not to “Brexit.” Immigration—and consequent persistent domestic Islamic terrorism—have been key political issues. There has been multilateral cooperation against the ISIS terrorist group in Syria.
Domestic politics in France remain confused. Reflecting increased conservative forces across Europe, during the 2017 election, France was poised for a significant surge by Marie Le Pen’s National Front.
Instead, a centrist rebound delivered victory to Emmanuel Macron, a one-time socialist, who essentially ran without party endorsement, creating his own party movement (“En Marche”) for his presidential campaign. Nevertheless, he attracted voter masses fatigued by politics-as-usual and intrigued by Macron’s personal life, including marrying his one-time school teacher.
Macron became France’s youngest president at 39 in May 2017, winning with 66 percent of the vote. Subsequently, En Marche, combined with the centrist Democratic Movement, won an absolute majority in the National Assembly.
Macron has worked on reforming the public sector and the labor code. The wealth tax has been replaced with a real estate levy, while Macron has loosened employment laws. It is now easier for companies to fire and hire employees. Macron has also passed stricter anti-terror laws and has made fighting Islamic terrorism his top foreign policy priority. He has also strongly supported the EU and backed sanctions against Russia for its Ukraine invasions.
His domestic policies, however, have been less than universally popular. Although he started with 60 to 65 percent support, after 100 days, his support had fallen faster than any previous French president, down to 36 percent. The labor reform giving employers greater freedom to hire and fire staff was deeply unpopular on the left. Subsequently, support rebounded above 50 percent in early December before slumping again to 35 percent in February—despite an improved economy.
Thus, Macron’s state visit to Washington—President Donald Trump’s first such ceremonial—and his address to Congress are a high point both bilaterally and for French “amour propre.” The visit has been characterized as a “bromance”—improbable as such a relationship might appear.
However, Macron clearly interacted positively with Trump, including mutual casual pats on the shoulder/arm. The president listened to Macron’s positions on supporting the Paris climate agreement and continuing the nuclear accord with Iran—politely, but not positively.
Subsequently, in Macron’s frequently applauded address to Congress, he inveighed against rising nationalism, argued in favor of the Paris agreement, and urged continued adherence to the Iran nuclear accord.
Clearly, the Macron–Trump relationship is stronger than the president’s relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who visited immediately afterward with virtually no media attention). Whether this relationship will last longer than the president’s forthcoming decision on adhering or withdrawing from the Iran nuclear treaty remains to be seen.
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”