PARIS: The last time French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Donald Trump in France, it turned into a diplomatic fiasco which underlined how once warm relations between the men had chilled to the point of freezing.
As the two men prepare to hold talks on Thursday on the sidelines of D-Day commemorations, Macron and French diplomats are hoping for a smoother run.
Trump’s trip in November last year for the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I culminated in a hail of bad-tempered tweeting caused by the US president’s bruised ego, a French diplomat told AFP.
During a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, with Trump seated among 70 leaders in the French capital, Macron delivered a speech that included an open rebuke of his brand of “America First” nationalism.
“Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” the 41-year-old centrist French leader said in a 20-minute address that also criticised “saying our interests come first and others don’t matter.”
The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the US real estate mogul had been angered by those lines and was also frustrated when a planned trip to an American military cemetery by helicopter was cancelled due to bad weather.
“There was also the sense that he came and he was one among other leaders and not THE leader who would make the big speech,” the diplomat explained. “It was a difficult period to manage.”
Two days after leaving the French capital, Trump let his fury known, mocking Macron for his “very low approval ratings” and writing how the French “were starting to learn German in Paris before the US came along” in World War II.
The US role in liberating France will be commemorated on Thursday by Trump and Macron on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings when 150,000 Allied troops began an invasion of Nazi-ruled France.
The two leaders will meet at the Colleville-sur-Mer American cemetery in northern France and then sit down for a working lunch in the town of Caen.
Their wives Melania and Brigitte, who have reportedly struck up a warm relationship, are to lunch together separately.
The French diplomat said that after the open hostilities in November, Macron and Trump had held several phone calls during which they rebuilt a relationship that had started surprisingly well after Macron’s election in 2017.
The US president was made a guest of honour of France’s National Day in July of that year and the two men referred to each other as “friends” and repeatedly patted each other on the back. The visit ended with a 25-second-long handshake.
“The relationship is still warm and direct,” the diplomat said. “Our approach has stayed the same: we continue to try to persuade and at the same time to cushion the impact when we haven’t succeeded.”
The problem for Macron is that his successes in persuading Trump and changing his thinking are few and far between, while the policy disagreements and gap between their visions of the world are becoming ever more glaring.
“Macron is not shy about saying the problem in the world is the populist nationalist movement,” Trump’s one-time adviser and campaign manager Steve Bannon told AFP in a recent interview.
“Macron is always looking to take a shot at the nationalists and I think sometimes he’s done it in inappropriate situations,” he added, saying that Trump in his view had been “very magnanimous” given the criticism.
He also recalled Macron’s speech to the US Congress in Washington in April last year, which he said included “several nasty lines” about the dangers of nationalism and isolationism.
The French leader, sometimes described as an “anti-Trump” on the world stage, has been a vocal critic of unilateral US decisions to pull out of the 2015 deal governing Iran’s nuclear programme and the Paris climate accord.
On Monday, he again condemned Trump’s trade policies, which have led to tariffs on European steel and aluminium imports and a growing trade war with China.
“With the US, we have discussions because they decide to put tariffs with unreasonable scenarios and argumentation,” Macron told global bankers in Paris in comments delivered in English.
Macron also knows that being critical of the American president plays well domestically in France where Trump is widely unpopular.
A poll by the YouGov survey group released on Wednesday showed that only 17% of French people had a positive view of the former reality TV star.
And only 24% thought Macron should take a more cooperative approach with him.
“With every American administration, there are things we disagree on, different interests, but we express ourselves clearly,” a second French diplomatic source said.
A sign of how far the Trump-Macron relationship has turned comes from the front garden of the White House.
When Macron visited for a state visit in April 2018, still hoping to persuade Trump to respect the Iran nuclear deal and drop tariffs on European steel imports, the two leaders planted an oak tree together.
The sapling, taken from a battlefield in France where US soldiers had fought in World War I, has since withered and died, Le Monde newspaper reported Wednesday.