Trump and Macron’s friendship back in spotlight as US president flees domestic woes

Kim Sengupta

Donald Trump arrived in Paris on Friday on his first trip after the midterm elections, with the international stage offering him a brief respite from the bitter domestic battles to come following the congressional shake-up.

The US president and his wife will attend ceremonies for the centenary of the end of the First World War, but will leave before a summit on global cooperation which is the main event in the gathering of world leaders.

Mr Trump will hold bilateral talks with Emmanuel Macron, but there will be no meetings with Vladimir Putin, whose shadow has hung over the US president. Investigations into claims that the Kremlin helped to put him in the White House are ongoing.

The topic of ‘Russiagate’ was at the forefront immediately after the elections in America this week, with Mr Trump sacking his attorney general in what is widely seen as an attempt to curb the inquiry by special counsel Robert Muller. As the US president prepared for his journey on Air Force One there were persistent reports that the speed of Jeff Sessions’ dismissal was an attempt by the president to save his son, Donald Junior, from being indicted by Mr Mueller.

While Democrat control of the House means that the remainder of Mr Trump’s term as president will almost certainly be mired in recriminations, investigations, subpoenas and legislative deadlock, he has a freer hand when it comes to foreign relations.

Mr Macron is the only international leader the US president will officially meet during the Paris visit. There had been rumours of a meeting with Mr Putin but the White House announced earlier this week that the tight schedule did not allow time. The French had let it be known they believed a de-facto Putin-Trump summit would be a distraction from the centennial. Some of the US president’s advisors also felt it may not be a good idea with the Russia investigations coming back into public eye.

Although himself a Vietnam draft dodger, Mr Trump appears to be fascinated by all things military, as can be judged by the number of senior officers he surrounded himself with, at least initially, in politics. However, one of them, his former national security adviser, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, is now co-operating with the Mueller inquiry after being charged. His successor, Lieutenant General HR McMaster, has resigned and, according to reports, defence secretary General James Mattis is likely to go in the near future.

Mr Trump was hugely impressed when he attended the Bastille Day parade in Paris at the invitation of President Macron last year and wanted one staged for him in Washington last November. The plans were abandoned in a dispute over costs with Washington city authorities and the US president tweeted in August: “I will, instead, go to the Paris Parade, celebrating the end of the war.”

French officials say the US president may have misunderstood the nature of the commemorations, which will not be celebratory but low key. The “Peace Forum”, which Mr Trump will be missing, will stress the need to avoid conflict through cooperation and dialogue.

Mr Trump, during his trip, will visit two cemeteries in Paris where 117,000 Americans who died in the First World War are buried. He will also give an address on Sunday at Suresnes, another burial ground, on the slopes of Mount Valerian.

According to administration officials, Mr Trump will stress the primary role the US has played in stabilising Europe, helping its economic recovery and providing security over decades. He will discuss, with Mr Macron, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the reinstating of sanctions by the US on Iran.

Although not having quite the toxicity of current American domestic politics, Mr Trump’s previous visits to Europe have often been acrimonious, with the US president attacking the European Union, hectoring fellow Nato members for not spending enough on defence – often using false figures in the process – and declaring that Russia, expelled from the G8 group of countries after the annexation of Crimea, should be re-admitted into the group.

Despite a degree of unity among the west European states and the US on policy towards Syria, there are diametric differences over Iran. Other signatories to the nuclear deal, including Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, have stressed the agreement was working and should continue despite American punishments.

Mr Macron and Mr Trump are said to have a good personal relationship, but there are major differences on public policy. The French president presents himself as a champion of liberal values, while Mr Trump has a populist approach, which has been echoed in eastern and central Europe.

Mr Macron has stated that the “real frontier” in the European Union is the one between progressives and right-wing populists. Charles Grant, of the influential think tank Centre for European Reform in London, described the French president as someone who “has got a rather Manichean view of good fighting evil and he wants to be the liberal global order fighting nationalism”.

Robert Emerson, a security and political analyst, said: “Macron sees himself as someone standing up for western democratic values against the forces of xenophobia, narrow nativism – the things Trump’s critics would say he espouses.”

The disconnect felt by many western European states towards the Trump presidency was illustrated when Mr Macron, before a conference of defence ministers on a projected European Union military force, stated: “We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.”

Nevertheless, with German chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been seen for years as the continent’s senior leader, withdrawing from public life – and the future of Theresa May uncertain with Brexit – Mr Macron is likely to be the main European interlocutor Mr Trump deals with for the remainder of his presidency.