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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

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

Washington will see the two faces of Europe this week – Macron's desire to be a pivotal power and Merkel as the Iron Chancellor focused on results

The US and French flags on display on the Eisenhower executive office building in Washington. Alex Brandon / AP
The US and French flags on display on the Eisenhower executive office building in Washington. Alex Brandon / AP

The chameleon charms of French President Emmanuel Macron are one of the wonders of modern politics.

In an otherwise bleak landscape of hard-faced populists, half-dead democrats and shop-worn strongmen, the French leader stands out from the crowd.

The sophisticated Parisian has forged an unlikely “bromance” with US President Donald Trump that will be on show later in the week.

Washington will accord Mr Macron a state visit, in true Trump style.

There is much they don’t agree on: climate change, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and trade protectionism. The French president is promoting a federal Europe, something the US leader scorns.

The US trip is a return favour for the spectacular treatment Mr Trump enjoyed as guest of honour during last July’s Bastille Day celebrations. Mr Macron’s invite to Mr Trump was a coup. It came at a time when the property developer craved international recognition and when the French leader’s counterparts in Germany and Britain were internally focused.

A mark of the level of respect the US leader is showing the Macrons is the state dinner he will be hosting. It will be held, not in a Trump property as tends to be the way but in Mount Vernon, the home of US founding father Thomas Jefferson.

By contrast, when Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, travels to Washington later in the week, the meetings will be cursory and business-like. A trade row is brewing across the Atlantic and Mr Trump reserves all his animosity for the German export machine.

Inevitably the Trump-Macron relationship has a common focus on personality or even branded politics.

It might not seem like it but Mr Macron is engaged in a Trump-like mission to challenge how politics has been done in his own country.

The reforms promoted by the president have triggered industrial strikes but not a nationwide resistance that could prove fatal to his hopes.

The strife coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student revolution. There has been only a symbolic re-occupation of the university campuses.

At home, it appears Mr Macron is “winning”, a quality Mr Trump likes to extol.

The French president is also a man capable of action. It was he, not the traditional comrade-in-arms in 10 Downing St, that took the early calls on the Syria airstrikes a week ago. Mr Macron is happy enough to claim he is confidant of the president and might yet secure a reverse of Mr Trump’s pledge to remove US troops from Syria.

After so many decades of decline – arguably since 1968 – Mr Macron wants to restore a French role as a pivotal power, not a medium-sized operator who makes up the numbers.

The ambition faces its toughest test in his dealings with Mr Trump as there will always be more to divide the pair than unite them, whatever the televised pictures depict.

The type of Europe that emerges as a result of Mr Macron’s tenure in the Elysee Palace will be crucial to his legacy.

Last week Mr Macron visited Mrs Merkel for a summit designed to set the tone for Franco-German leadership of Europe. She staged the meeting in an unfinished renovation of a Berlin palace that is a well-known symbol of 19th century Prussian pomp.

One observer wrote that if there was intended to be a message in the choice of venue, it did not bode well for what would follow.

In the end, the minuscule levels of consensus on the big issues were not lost on most observers.

The French president was reported to have needled Mrs Merkel to forge a partnership with him, as her predecessors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl had done with Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand respectively to create the European Community and the euro in decades past.

Mr Macron has not yet gained her backing for a single European economy, as that would be inevitably bankrolled by German wealth. Instead Mrs Merkel talks of progress across a broader front, gradually strengthening the European profile in financial markets, security and foreign affairs.

Mr Macron has warned of a “civil war” in Europe if the continent is not better run. Rich parts of a federation cannot continue to withhold direct support for the strugglers. The push to kickstart the process at a summit in June has provoked a north-south split.

It is not that Germany or Mrs Merkel lack sympathy for Mr Macron’s urgency. Brexit shows the clock is ticking, however much Europeans are in denial. She has even previously quoted Herman Hesse to the 40-year-old French leader, saying there is magic in every beginning but it only lasts when there are results.

Washington will see the two faces of Europe. No amount of bonhomie can disguise that fact of self-harm.

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