Trump Meets Macron
On Thursday May 25, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump will meet for the first time to “exchange opinions.” Expectations and curiosity around this lunch are high, not only in France but in the whole transatlantic realm, as the new French candidate has been critical of some of Trump's first decisions and the two presidents’ political views seem to have little in common. However, the spirit of French–American relations is particularly high after years of close and productive cooperation on defense and security issues, and shared strategic interests are expected to guide the conversation.
What’s on the Table
The U.S. president is said to have been very impressed by the rapid success of his French counterpart, and this meeting will first and foremost be the opportunity to create a personal link between them. For Emmanuel Macron, this is another test that he can handle the most important diplomatic situations despite his lack of experience. In terms of content, Donald Trump is likely to focus on the question of defense spending, as he did during his phone calls with President François Hollande until now. Indeed, France currently spends 1.7 percent of its GDP on defense, and the United States will continue to push for further efforts. The two leaders will also discuss the fight against ISIS and Islamist terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa — a key priority for both countries — and additional issues of concern for the French side such as immigration and U.S. financial support to the UN.
Although the two men have run and won their elections with radically different political platforms, especially on globalization and liberal values, the continuity of French–American defense cooperation will certainly help find common grounds. The nomination of Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was particularly appreciated in DC as the French minister of defense, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the symbol of this continuity. For France, the objective is to remain to be perceived as the most able and willing partner of the United States on defense issues. The French operations in the Sahel and Mali, as well as its active participation in the coalition against ISIS and its fight against terrorism at home will strengthen Macron’s credibility vis-à-vis Trump. This will be necessary to overshadow the fact that the French president has been rather timid on defense spending so far. Indeed, his program plans a steady but limited increase of the defense budget to reach the 2 percent goal only by 2025, which had been read in some transatlantic circles as a sign that he does not take this issue seriously enough.
The French have also resisted the idea of a direct involvement of NATO in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Trump’s intention to make NATO more relevant to today’s threats by focusing on counterterrorism may not be opposed by France in principle, but this should not translate into a new out-of-area operation for the Alliance. This resistance — which is shared with Germany — could create tensions with the United States if Donald Trump sees it as an obstacle in his actions against ISIS. Macron, who supports European defense cooperation, will have to convince his interlocutor that other formats of collaboration may be preferable. The nomination of the pro-European Sylvie Goulard as the new French Minister of the Armies, will be key in advancing the idea of a stronger European defense and pillar inside NATO.
What is at Stake
This first encounter between the two recently-elected presidents of France and the U.S. will have implications on the future of the transatlantic relationship as a whole. In the context of Brexit, and given the ambitious European agenda of Macron, France could aim to take the lead in bridging the two sides of the Atlantic, and especially between Washington and Berlin. The divergence of values and characters could well be forgotten if defense cooperation is underlined as the cornerstone of the bilateral relationship, and key members of the Trump administration – General McMaster and General Mattis in particular – will certainly influence the preparation of the meeting in that direction. However, if Donald Trump insists on focusing on defense spending, or if the two countries directly clash on the strategy for the coalition against ISIS, the dialogue could take a very different turn.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.