Macron Trolls Trump to Establish International Role, Win Votes

  • Stance on U.S. leader’s climate move popular beyond France
  • Macron facing key parliamentary elections in a week’s time

Macron-Trump Handshake Under the Microscope

French President Emmanuel Macron has found a way to establish himself on the international scene: give Donald Trump a taste of his own trolling. Oh, and it’s not bad for domestic politics either.

It began with a bone-crunching handshake with Trump at the NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, followed by an interview in which Macron boasted that the macho display was meant to send the message that he’ll hold his ground against the U.S. president.

After Trump announced on June 1 that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on carbon emissions, Macron -- in English -- invited U.S. climate scientists to work in France and hijacked Trump’s signature slogan with a call to “make our planet great again.”

The French foreign ministry got into the act by posting a video that, by scribbling in English on top of the White House’s own video, refutes point-by-point what it said were incorrect Trump statements about the Paris accord, all with a #MakeThePlanetGreatAgain hashtag. The video was viewed 11 million times, had 179,000 shares on Facebook, and was re-tweeted on Twitter 49,000 times.

“Macron wants to send a message that he’s playing on the same playing field as Trump,” said Philippe Moreau Defarges, adviser at the Paris-based French Institute for International Affairs. “He thinks that if Trump is going to use Twitter and video messages in an aggressive way, then so am I. Macron has made a bet that he’s going to be as modern as possible in his communication, and to a degree that also means trolling.”

Like Trump, 70, Macron is betting that his approach will pay off at home, in next week’s parliamentary elections. “He really needs a majority in Parliament to run the country properly,” said Philippe Le Corre, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. “Trump is unpopular, and in Europe everybody is in favor of this deal.”

Macron Won. What Does he Do Now?

There’s some risk in an approach that Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called “more playful” than that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The German leader made headlines a week ago by suggesting that Trump’s disdain for international organizations means Europeans can no longer rely on the trans-Atlantic relationship.

After all, Macron is taking on a thin-skinned president who runs a country that shares crucial intelligence and is France’s second biggest export market, behind Germany.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said no disrespect was meant by “correcting” the White House’s video.

“We are not insulting anyone, we are engaging in a substantive debate,” Nadal said. “We have made social media a key part of our communication. So does President Trump. That’s how it is now, so it’s normal that the debate is played out across social media.”

A White House official speaking on condition of anonymity said there were no hard feelings about Macron’s actions or comments, and no concerns they’ll harm the relationship. “They had a great meeting and we think they will only grow stronger,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

Silencing Putin

Macron, 39, didn’t focus much on foreign policy during the campaign that led to his May 7 electoral victory, instead running on a platform of loosening economic regulations and intensifying European integration. When he did, he tended to take a hawkish stances on relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and stress his attachment to Western institutions such as NATO.

Putin also came in for some of Macron’s steeliness when, during a joint May 29 press conference at Versailles, Macron accused two media outlets close to the Kremlin of being “propaganda organs” that spread false news during the French election. A stone-faced Putin didn’t react.

“He’s not afraid of Putin or Trump,” said Moreau Defarges. “He wants to be a General De Gaulle style president who knows that France is small, but still speaks as a equal to the big powers. De Gaulle used to say his only model was Tintin, the little guy who stands up to the big guys,” referring to the cartoon character who’s actually Belgian but is read by most French children.

‘Regal Status’

Le Corre, of Brookings, and others said they didn’t think the back-and-forth over climate would hurt close cooperation between the U.S. and France in other domains, such as joint military operations against Islamic militants across the Sahara, and in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

“The military cooperation is very important to both countries, above all in the combat against jihadist terrorism, and the relationship between the two countries seems to have started on the right foot on this front,” said Frederic Bozo, a professor of contemporary history at Sorbonne Nouvelle University.

The Macron-Trump jousting is also minor compared to earlier crises in French-American relations. The U.S. strongly opposed France’s 1956 military seizure of the Suez Canal, and relations hit a nadir when President Charles De Gaulle in 1966 ordered U.S. military forces to leave France. Closer relations followed, particularly under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand in the 1980s, but then came another falling out when President Jacques Chirac opposed George W. Bush’s 2003 Iraq invasion, famously leading to “freedom fries.” Relations then rapidly improved under the next two French presidents, and as U.S. public opinion turned against the Iraq War.

If there’s a risk to Macron, it’s that sparring over social media isn’t how many French imagine their president. “This type of conduct could hurt the presidential image, because it does chip away the regal status that he wanted to give it,” the Sorbonne’s Bozo said.

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