The Slatest

Trump Is Mad at Macron for Trying to Do Exactly What Trump Wants

US president Donald Trump shakes hands with French president Emmanuel Macron as he arrives at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on November 11, 2018 to attend a ceremony as part of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice.
US president Donald Trump shakes hands with French president Emmanuel Macron as he arrives at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on November 11, 2018.

After some social media sparring in the lead-up to Donald Trump’s trip to Paris last weekend, he and French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to get along relatively well during their sit-down meeting on Saturday. But Trump was back on the attack Tuesday morning, once against blasting Macron’s calls for a “European Army”:

What’s going on here?

Let’s start with what’s definitely true. Macron’s poll numbers are very bad, even worse than Trump’s, which are not exactly great.

It’s also true that U.S. winemakers have longstanding complaints about EU tariffs and subsidies that make it difficult for American exporters to compete on the Continent. (Although lately, the more pressing crisis for American winemakers has been China’s new tariffs on U.S. wine, imposed in retaliation amid Trump’s escalating trade war.) The French wine issue doesn’t appear to be one that Trump has brought up before, but judging by precedent, it may become a fixation. Trump is a teetotaler, but wine appears to be high on his list of associations with France. In his first conversation after his 2016 election victory with former President Francois Hollande, Trump reportedly told the French leader, “I love France, I love French people, I love your country, I love Paris, I love your wine,” according to an aide to Hollande.

The more important part of Trump’s rant today, however, was his return to what several days ago he had called Macron’s “very insulting” suggestion of building a “true European army” to “protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.” The Élysée Palace has clarified that statement, and from reading the the full context of Macron’s remarks in his radio interview with Europe 1, it’s clear that he was not suggesting a European army to fight against the United States. His argument was that Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the transatlantic alliance and longstanding defense pacts like NATO makes it necessary for Europe to take greater responsibility for its own defense. “We must have a Europe that defends itself more on its own, without only depending on the United States and in a more sovereign way,” Macron said.

The idea of establishing an integrated European military to complement NATO, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also backed, is controversial—a step toward integration that’s vastly out of step with the current mood on the Continent. But the larger idea here, that Europe should take responsibility for its own defense rather than relying on others (the United States, mainly) is exactly what Trump has been calling for since he took office. Trump ought to be applauding Macron, not castigating him.

Trump remains fixated on what he misleadingly calls paying “for NATO,” even though Macron is basically doing what Trump wants. With defense spending at 1.8 percent of GDP, France is already close to the 2 percent NATO goal on members’ defense spending that has become Trump’s obsession, and Macron announced in July that it will meet the threshold by 2024. And while outdated stereotypes from the “freedom fries” era persist in the U.S., France is among the more hawkish European powers.

It’s more obvious than ever that Trump doesn’t actually care all that much about European defense-spending targets. He’s hostile to the transatlantic alliance itself and even more so to anything that smacks of European integration.

There’s something sinister in the invocation of the world wars here. (Macron, who spent the past week touring World War I battlefields in Northern France, certainly doesn’t need the U.S. president to tell him about his country’s history with Germany.) Is Trump’s implication that France should be more concerned about the threat from its historical enemy Germany than from Russia or China? It’s not out of the question that Trump actually believes this, considering that he called the EU “as bad as China” on trade, invoked Pearl Harbor in a negotiation with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and has, let’s say, unorthodox views on Russian foreign policy.

Macron’s pro-European sympathies clearly irk Trump. The remark about France being “nationalist” is plainly a response to Macron’s speech in Paris on Sunday—widely read as a direct rebuke of Trump, who was in attendance—in which he rejected nationalism as a “betrayal of patriotism.”

Trump has expressed support in the past for far-right French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen and, coupled with his invocation of Macron’s poll numbers, appears to be again suggesting that the French president is out of touch with the true “nationalist” nature of his constituents. We’ll see at France’s next election, but judging from Le Pen’s recent moves to distance herself from Steven Bannon’s efforts to build a united nationalist front in Europe, it’s not certain that Macron’s right-wing opponents will actually welcome Trump’s intervention. Trump has gotten slightly more popular in France lately, but he’s still one of the few world leaders the French like even less than their own.