Macron’s clever approach to the US leader shows it is possible to greet him while disagreeing with his views
President Macron may be a complete novice as the leader of France, but in the way he hosted Donald Trump in Paris last week he showed the skill, vision and cunning of an old pro. To all of those in this country who have bleated and protested about Theresa May’s invitation to Trump to make a state visit to Britain, the benefits of Macron’s manoeuvre are plain to see.
Trump was treated to the full charm offensive of the French trying to impress: dinner atop the Eiffel Tower, massed military parades, hour after hour with France’s new president and all the excitement of Bastille Day. Though not technically a state visit, it was the near-spontaneous equivalent of one, proposed by Macron a few weeks ago with the eye of a very clever operator.
By the end of it, Trump went home liking a country he knew little of before, more positive about the performance of a key ally, more likely to consult the Élysée Palace in the future and apparently open to some movement in his position on climate change – an immense event in its own right if it happens.
Macron no doubt had to swallow hard during many of their talks. He is a centrist politician who disagrees with Trump on a vast range of diplomatic, social and political issues. He had to put up with Trump’s patronising way of complimenting Madame Macron. He probably had to endure all sorts of jibes at European ideals, his German allies and other subjects dear to his heart. But he did all that, knowing it was in the best interests of his country, its influence and its alliances.
The French public evidently share the pragmatism of their new head of state: surveys have suggested that only 6 per cent of them agree with what Trump stands for, but 60 per cent of them agreed with inviting him. It is a fair guess that at least as many will be pleased with the results. The French seem able to hold in their heads two perfectly legitimate thoughts at the same time – that they don’t like Trump but they do think it right to make him welcome in their country and to make the most of the relationship with America.
Turn back to Britain and we find a large number of people who cannot hold these two thoughts simultaneously. To them, if they don’t like Trump, he shouldn’t come here and to hell with our links with our closest ally and to trying to influence the most powerful man in the world to adopt more of our positions.
When a state visit for Trump was announced, it resulted in more than a million people signing a petition against it, a furious debate in parliament and a controversy that continued through the election campaign. Labour and Liberal campaigners queued up to call for postponement or cancellation, and have celebrated the fact that it has indeed been put off to next year.
I agree with many of these people that Trump is not the president we wanted the United States to elect. The ignorance of world affairs with which he starts, his failure to separate his family from his businesses while in office, his attitude to women, his hostility to free trade, his misguided “wall” policy and much of his behaviour is depressing or appalling. Had I been an American, I would certainly have voted for Hillary Clinton.
Yet Macron and the French people are telling us something important when they show you can agree with all of the above criticism of Trump and yet still greet him with all the pomp, fuss and flypasts the country can muster. That is what diplomacy is about a lot more than spending time with people you already agree with.
In the course of four years as Foreign Secretary I visited more than 80 countries and sometimes had to deal with dictators and warlords who could have made Donald Trump seem like a pussycat. Many of them I didn’t like one bit. Yet I had to talk to them, to try to stop a conflict, or help British nationals in trouble, or plant a thought in their heads. If I had only gone round countries we shared the same views with on everything I would have pointlessly rotated round half a dozen places for my whole time in office. What is in the interests of an entire nation is not the same as what makes you feel personally happy and comfortable.
President Trump has been wrong about many things already. He has revoked the Trans Pacific Partnership, surrendering to China the opportunity to lead in the fastest growing part of the world economy. He has helped to provoke the breakdown in relations between the Gulf States, which his representatives are now trying to mend. He has shown a disregard for saving the environment at home and abroad.
He has also, however, shown in his first six months in office that he can change his mind. He’s been tougher on Assad than he said he would be, less of a pushover with Putin – though with a massive scandal looming over him – oscillated on China, and moderated his views on withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement. In his speech in Poland 10 days ago he spoke of the ideals of freedom, the importance of Nato’s Article 5 and the common security it brings, and the need for the Western alliance – none of which featured in his election rhetoric.
It may be worrying that Trump so obviously bears the impression of the last person who sat on him, but that is all the more reason to stay physically close to him. We should all want a free trade deal with the United States when we leave the EU.
Our security against terrorism and all military threats depends massively on America. Furthermore, British foreign policy after Brexit has to show how the UK can still pull both sides of the Atlantic together, and how Paris, Berlin and Washington still need to call London when they are looking for global actions and solutions.
A state visit by a new President of the United States who is still forming his policies and views is a natural and obvious part of achieving these objectives. What a pity that a whole range of sanctimonious commentators in Britain have to learn that from the actions of our neighbours rather than any good sense of their own. But learn it they should, because Macron did his country proud.