(CNN)It was another brick in a grand edifice — only this time, it isn’t a Trump Organization structure. It belongs almost entirely to French President Emmanuel Macron. Donald Trump is simply the window-dressing.
There’s no question who was in charge at Thursday afternoon’s joint press conference that wound up a day of talks. It was a prequel to tomorrow’s grand Bastille Day parade, where Trump and Macron will sit side by side on the reviewing stand for the type of military extravaganza Trump’s inauguration team reportedly so much wanted for his own inauguration. Donald Trump has come to the court of the French ruler and not the other way around.
During the press conference, with Macron standing by his side, Trump did his best to walk back some of his previous attacks on issues that are at the heart of what it means to be France today.
Instead of linking the increase in immigration to the recent rise in terrorist attacks in France, Trump said that, in its new President, France has a tough leader who can handle terrorism. Indeed, it was quite a different tune from his suggestion that Marie Le Pen — France’s former far-right presidential candidate– could win the election after the Paris attacks because of her tough stance on immigration.
As for climate change and Trump’s shocking decision to withdraw the United States from the global climate pact negotiated in Paris two years ago, Trump said, “something could happen with respect to the Paris accord, we’ll see what happens. If it happens, that’ll be wonderful, if it doesn’t, that’ll be okay too.” Not dissimilar to the remarks Trump made in the Rose Garden when he announced his apparently unbending decision to withdraw six weeks ago.
The subjects of their bilateral session earlier had spanned the entire range of agreements and disagreements between the two nations — trade, refugees, Ukraine, Syria, terrorism. But for Trump, it seemed that the bully in the schoolyard, having found one potential friend, was going to go at least that extra rhetorical mile — and quite likely for one key reason.
Somehow, whatever Macron touches turns to gold. It is quite clear that, for Trump, it would not be unwelcome if some of that gilt were to rub off on him — a perfectly understandable motive for jetting across the Atlantic for the second time in a week. And the French people, for whom Macron can apparently do no wrong, approved. A poll by BFMTV shows some 59% think Macron was justified in issuing the invitation — far better than any numbers Trump’s been polling back home.
The reason for these numbers is that the French understand Macron’s underlying motives for inviting someone who so far represents almost nothing their own President stands for. Trump is seemingly a climate-change denier, Macron fully embraces the global environmental pact that Trump exited with fanfare; Trump wants bilateral trade pacts and supported Britain’s exit from the European Union, Macron believes deeply that his nation’s prosperity is tied to a globalized economic structure; Trump has been dismissive of the plight of Middle East refugees, Macron believes Europe and the world needs to do its best in the face of a humanitarian crisis.
Nevertheless, Trump is there. And it’s largely due to a grand underlying agenda that may not be immediately apparent to the American President. Macron is bidding for France to become the central pillar of a resurgent Europe. And if becoming Europe’s Trump whisperer has to be a part of it, he seems willing to grit his teeth, smile winningly, and pitch right in.
Macron hasn’t come to pay court to Trump at the White House. Instead, he simply awaited his moment, then shrewdly engineered Trump coming to pay court to him. By this calculus, it’s legitimate to ask: who is driving Europe’s ship? Certainly not Theresa May. She had a barely civil first meeting with Trump in Washington, then everything went to hell for her at home. It’s not even Angela Merkel, long viewed as Europe’s capo di tutti capi, who’s deeply involved in her own re-election campaign and, at the same time, spent much of “her” G20 marginalizing Trump. The Economist observed that “Berlin has neither the appetite nor the means of becoming Europe’s principal leader.”
It’s Macron who has stage-managed all of this to perfection, trying, in Macron’s words, “to build solutions” with Trump by his side that could serve as the basis for a strong diplomatic foundation for France to be a leader among nations.
Now, if Macron can manage to shepherd his huge social, economic and tax reforms through a National Assembly that he seems to control unreservedly, France’s economy, too, could emerge as the strongest in Europe. With post-Brexit London newly marginalized, Paris could be poised to take London’s position as the continent’s leading banking and financial center — making France a nation that American interests will certainly need to deal with going forward.
In the age of disrupters, where Trump has emerged as the disrupter in chief, Macron is turning out to be a conciliator — and, in the end, the kind of true leader that his American guest may aspire to be, but never become.