Macron's Gamble: Keep Trump Close and Brace for Turbulence Ahead

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(Bloomberg) -- It can be a lonely business being Donald Trump’s friend.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Washington this week looking to use his special influence with the U.S. leader to bring him back into the international fold. Yet after three days of hand holding, cheek kissing and mutual declarations of friendship between the two leaders, Macron leaves the U.S. without much to show for his efforts.

He failed to persuade Trump to stick with the Iran nuclear deal and now finds himself the lone champion of a new, improvised-on-the-fly initiative to contain Iran that so far has been met with skepticism by the White House and his fellow Europeans.

Despite his forceful attempts in long private sessions to change Trump’s mind, Macron said he believes the U.S. president will pull out of the existing Iran agreement. “My view -- I don’t know what your president will decide -- is that he will get rid of this deal on his own for domestic reasons,” he told journalists at George Washington University on Wednesday.

Even with little concrete progress, Macron is gambling that keeping the conversation going may make it easier to work with the U.S. in case of turbulent times to come.

The gap between Macron’s goals and Trump’s intentions was only one aspect of an unusual state visit that, if nothing else, underlined the French president’s favored status in Washington.

“Unbreakable” is how Trump characterized the relationship with Macron -- “my friend.”

Yet during the carefully choreographed statecraft, Macron showed two very different sides. Through two official dinners, a visit to Mount Vernon, tree planting and hand holding, the personal chemistry between the two leaders was on full show, sometimes, with the shoulder rub, embarrassingly so.

Congress Speech

That didn’t stop him from disagreeing openly and forcefully with his host: on economic policy, America First, climate change, just about everything. In his speech to a joint session of Congress, Macron delivered an eloquent rebuttal of Trump’s world view and outlined an alternative of nations working together to boost trade, keep the peace and defend the middle classes.

While standard fare for a European audience, the speech divided his American listeners. Macron’s prediction that the U.S. will one day return to the Paris Climate Accord -- reversing Trump’s decision to pull out last year -- was met by cheers from Democratic lawmakers. And a poker face from Vice President Mike Pence.

On trade, his second big priority after Iran, Macron was optimistic that punitive U.S. tariffs on European steel and aluminum can be averted. The French leader said he believes that in the end Trump will agree to exempt the EU, though he received no assurances to that end.

“That’s my bet,” he said. “A trade war between allies doesn’t make sense.”

Earlier in the visit, a Trump broadside made it clear that Macron’s primary goal of persuading the U.S. to stay in the Iran nuclear accord stood little chance. So the French president changed tack, pitching a “new deal” that would add on extra commitments to address U.S. concerns on Tehran’s broader influence in the Middle East.

Macron said late Wednesday that his diplomatic adviser had reached out to European counterparts to discuss the idea and insisted it was not “a personal action or initiative.” Indeed, Macron said he coordinated with Germany’s Angela Merkel, who is due to visit the White House on Friday.

Europe Split

All the same, France’s European Union partners were left without all the elements of the plan and will need to be briefed, according to two EU officials. The bloc’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, gave short shrift to the idea of a new round of negotiations to replace the existing accord, known as the JCPOA.

“The deal we have in place now today, the only existing deal for the moment, is working,” Mogherini told reporters in Brussels.

Bruno Cautres, a political analyst at Paris-based Sciences-Po, said the French president had “put himself in a risky corner” with his visit. “He got way ahead of himself and it could be problematic -- for his image and with his European allies. The next couple of weeks will be crucial for his credibility.”

The risk is broader than the Iran issue, with Trump’s willingness to tear up international treaties threatening to destabilize relationships in all sorts of other areas, not least the potential talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. Macron said that kind of unpredictability can work in the short term, but it can prove “very insane” over time.

By keeping him close, Macron hopes to be able to exert at least some influence. On Iran, Macron explained that he wants to to keep Trump engaged and to have a “diplomatic framework” in place so that relations with Tehran don’t “fall into a sort of void” if and when the U.S. pulls out of the nuclear deal. Trump has to decide by May 12 whether to extend a sanction waiver for Iran.

“I have no insider information on what the U.S. president will decide on the Iranian accord,” Macron told reporters. “But I have the same senses as you -- including sound -- and I think I have heard over again from his campaign to yesterday’s press conference that he doesn’t have a ferocious desire to maintain it. Do I take this personally? No.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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