(Bloomberg) -- After footage of a purported chemical attack on the Damascus suburb of Douma hit screens worldwide April 7, U.S. President Donald Trump knew whom to call in Europe.
Trump spoke twice in 24 hours with French President Emmanuel Macron about what he called the atrocity in Syria. Three days passed before the U.S. president spoke with another world leader about a response.
Macron’s status as head of the European Union’s foremost military power gives him a leg up over other EU chiefs who are often derided by Trump: France’s prime minister, foreign minister and government spokesman have all indicated that France would join the U.S in a punitive strike against the Syrian regime.
As he prepares to fly to Washington this month for a full state visit, the first European head to be given that honor by Trump, Macron has established himself as the president’s go-to leader in Europe. While testament to his political acumen, it’s a role that carries risks for Macron if he’s seen as too close to a U.S. president who remains deeply unpopular in France.
“He’s the foreign leader with the best relations with Trump,” said Nicholas Dungan, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a professor at Paris-based institute Sciences Po. “Among the European leaders, he’s the one guy Trump will actually listen to. That matters.”
Macron has established his position both through personal chemistry -- Trump enjoyed a Bastille Day ceremony in Paris so much that he wants to replicate it in Washington -- and because French forces are deeply implicated with their U.S. counterparts from the Sahara to Syria. One of their first phone calls after Macron took office in May involved agreeing to carry out joint strikes in Syria if chemical weapons were used again.
France has 10 Dassault Aviation SA Rafale aircraft armed with Scalp cruise missiles based in Jordan and Abu Dhabi. The French say their jets have carried out more than 7,000 sorties and destroyed 2,000 targets since joining the anti-Islamic State coalition in 2014. French special forces, with U.S. logistical and intelligence back-up, track Islamist rebels along the southern rim of the Sahara from bases in Mali, Chad and Niger.
Trump’s appreciation of Macron and French military hard-power contrasts with the Barack Obama years, when Germany was seen as Europe’s principal player because of its dominant economy and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership role.
“France was a secondary player for eight years because the Americans thought that Berlin was the capital of Europe,” said Martin Quencez, senior program officer at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Paris. “Macron is now Trump’s anchor in Europe.”
Trump has clashed repeatedly with Merkel, singling out Germany for running an “unfair” trade surplus with the U.S. and for not spending enough on its military. And while British Prime Minister Theresa May has at her disposal the only European military force that rivals France’s, Trump has yet to show her the kind of regard he’s offered Macron.
The U.S. president is unpopular in France, with a poll last November saying 90 percent of the French had an unfavorable opinion of him. A Pew research poll in June 2017 found just 14 percent of respondents in France said they trusted Trump to do the right thing compared with 22 percent in the U.K., which vaunts the so-called special relationship with the U.S.
But Macron has so far avoided falling into the same trap as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose close relations with President George W. Bush prompted him to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, forever tarnishing his reputation at home.
That’s partly because Macron has stood his ground with Trump, openly clashing with him on climate and trade policy, while avoiding insulting him personally. He’s also underlined areas where the two countries work together, above all in anti-terrorism.
Trump’s Bastille Day visit last July drew generally favorable press coverage in France because Macron kept the focus on the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I. Meanwhile, a planned Trump visit to Britain has yet to materialize, partly because of concerns over how he’d be welcomed.
The risk for Macron in allying so closely to the U.S. leader is less domestic and more that it hurts his credibility as an independent arbiter with states such as Iran and the Palestinians, said Alexandra Hoop de Scheffer, director of the German Marshall Fund office in Paris.
Ultimately, however, most French have a realist view of the world that means they accept the need to deal with Trump, according to Dungan at the Atlantic Council. “The French want their county to play a role on the world stage and they know you don’t do that by refusing to talk to the Americans,” he said.
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