THE young French president, Emmanuel Macron, turned up in Washington, DC, this week for his state visit keen to make something of the oddly close link he has forged with Donald Trump. Top of his list was an effort to persuade the American leader not to walk away from the Iran nuclear agreement. Mr Trump has threatened to do this on May 12th, and may well still do so. Yet, for the first time, the American president hinted that he might be interested in a European idea, promoted by the French president, of brokering an add-on deal to cover wider American concerns about Iran. If this can keep Mr Trump on board, it would be a big diplomatic coup for Mr Macron.
The French president’s proposal is one that France, Britain and Germany have been working on closely together. The idea would be to widen the existing agreement, made in 2015 with the Europeans, Russia, America and China, with a side deal. This would cover Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its regional interference, as well as extend beyond 2025 Iran’s commitment to curb its nuclear activities. Though Mr Trump, standing next to Mr Macron in Washington, this week called the existing deal “insane” and “ridiculous”, he also hinted that there was some common ground between them. “I think,” said Mr Trump, “we will have a great shot at doing a much bigger, maybe, deal.”
Given the American president’s volatility and his team’s hostility to any compromise over Iran, this is a gamble for Mr Macron. Indeed, since he was elected a year ago, he has invested much in trying to use his warm relationship with the American leader to win him round, on matters from climate to trade, tolerating strange moments of public humiliation in the process. At one point in the Oval office this week, the American president flicked what he called “dandruff” from Mr Macron’s collar, declaring: “We have to make him perfect.” At another, he appeared to tug Mr Macron along like a dog.
The pair make a decidedly odd couple. It is hard to imagine two Western leaders with more contrasting world views. The host, a brash former reality-television star was elected on a promise to shut borders and spurn multilateralism. The guest, a cerebral philosophy graduate, won power by rejecting nationalism and praising Europe and the liberal world order. Yet the pair seem to have found a certain respect for each other, ever since Mr Macron gave Mr Trump a knuckle-crunching handshake when they first met a year ago. Each is a political outsider—a “maverick”, in Mr Macron’s words—who won power against the odds. For Mr Macron, the summit was a chance to show the world that France still counts and his citizens that it is still capable of grandeur. For Mr Trump, it is gratifying to have a smart, dynamic young leader flatteringly wanting to be his friend. Some call Mr Macron the “Trump whisperer”.
By staking so much on the Iran deal, Mr Macron has put his credibility as an emerging European leader on the line. He certainly does not seek to align himself unconditionally with Mr Trump, although France took part in—and indeed pushed for—recent air strikes with America and Britain against Syrian chemical-weapons facilities. Rather, the French president’s ambition is, at best, to encourage the American leader to use his country’s influence in a more benign way and at least to keep him from inflicting too much damage.
So far, the French seem happy to let Mr Macron make a go of this relationship. The French generally prefer their leaders to project the country’s independence, as did de Gaulle, and pillory those who cosy up to Americans, as did Nicolas Sarkozy to George W. Bush. As Mr Macron prepares to mark the first anniversary of his election on May 7th, he is not popular at home. Yet most people like the way he has changed the country’s image abroad. His talk of grandeur and prestige goes down well, and the prospect of France acting as Europe’s preferred leader in Washington seems to make up for popular distaste for Mr Trump.
At some point, however, there will be domestic pressure on Mr Macron to show something in return for all this Trump-flattery. He has on occasion exaggerated his influence over his American counterpart. But he also knows that their differences are great and, at times, insurmountable. “Sometimes I manage to convince him, and sometimes I fail,” Mr Macron said earlier this year. The best the French president may be able to hope for is to tame Mr Trump’s wilder instincts and keep him at least listening to those inside the Western liberal-democratic club. For now, Mr Macron looks like the smartest European handler of the tricky American president. In the longer run, if he cannot secure tangible returns for his efforts, he will run the risk of looking naive, or foolish, or both.