The French approach to ‘America First’: Disagreement, but with Dialogue

Ours is a time when even the most Atlanticist countries talk about Europe’s need for strategic autonomy, and when some of its leaders are realizing that “the times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over,” to use Angela Merkel’s words. So readers may have been surprised when they saw France’s president praise his relationship with his US counterpart, especially with this US president, who was instrumental at convincing Merkel that “we have to fight for our own future ourselves.”

But if Emmanuel Macron is taking great care of his personal relationship with Donald Trump, it does not mean that he dismisses France’s traditional pursuit of independence. Since his election, Macron has been rather consistent with his campaign references to De Gaulle. Beyond the displays of “bromance,” Macron had several occasions in Washington to make his differences clear, and he seized them.

France’s independent posture certainly does not imply that it will disagree with the United States on every occasion. Not does it mean that when it does, it will become estranged. At the end of the day, France seeks to work with the United States wherever possible and knows how much it benefits from this cooperation. But it wants to preserve the capacity to operate without the US if and when needed — without giving up on the possibility that the two nations can join efforts again later.

That approach was faced with many challenges in Washington given that the number of disagreements in foreign policy has only grown since Trump’s inauguration, despite the positive bilateral relationship, Iran is certainly topping that list. Trump is critical of the nuclear deal struck in July 2015, and he toys with a possible withdrawal. France actually shares U.S. concerns over Iran’s ballistic program and its activism in regional crises, as well as on what will follow at the end of the period covered when the deal ends in 2025. Still, rather than scrapping the deal altogether, Macron suggested a more comprehensive solution be built around it. And he knows that reaching any such solution will be hard enough even without Trump continuously moving the goalpost.

The risk of a trade war is another area of divergence and was also discussed during the visit. And one could also mention climate change, the Middle East peace process, data protection, the role of multilateralism, fake news, etc.

Although both countries, together with the United Kingdom, launched joint strikes earlier this month after the Douma chemical attack, the list of contentious issues even included Syria. Macron pledged to keep his US counterpart committed to a conflict Trump has publicly vowed to exit. 

My colleague Jeremy Shapiro is skeptical that Macron’s “best buddy” strategy is the best one. He is right that none of those who have enjoyed good personal relations with Trump have a record of policy gains to show for it – Macron no more than others. But I take exception that he has used “flattery” as his main strategy.

To begin with, Macron’s approach consists of talking to the United States, and not just to its current president. That’s the case when he calls upon non-governmental actors (corporations, local government, foundations) to work within the framework of the Paris climate agreement.

He has also made sure not to be left only with a negative agenda. For France, the fight against terrorism – from the Sahel to the Levant – and more broadly French military seriousness, including with its defense budgetdefense budget, are its most obvious assets.

Macron also coordinated with his German counterpart prior to his visit, as Merkel prepared to meet Trump later the same week. This coordination has continued since then, with Macron, Merkel and Theresa May now agreeing on an Iran strategy via additional agreements meant to preserve and expand the 2015 deal. Such coordination is particularly important given the role these three countries – the so-called E3 – have played in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program since 2003. But most, if not all, of the issues mentioned above will have to be dealt with at a European level. 

How effective can Europe be? We may have a first answer on May 12, when Trump officially takes a stand on the Iran deal issue. But even Macron himself had little hope that the European approach will prevail. If so, the European talk about strategic autonomy will be put to a major test, which will go beyond attempts to disagree with and influence others in a diplomatic fashion and into the defense of individual views and interests while preserving the transatlantic bonds in the period of tensions that will surely follow.

* Photo from the White House Archive

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, Head of Paris Office and Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR

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