Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
It looked like a Mission Impossible. The French President came to Washington with the conflicting goals of simultaneously seducing President Trump – whose concept of love demands effusive public displays of affection – and the people of the United States, most of whom, according to polls, are not quite in love with their President. Making the French President’s job even more complicated, he had to worry about the audiences at home in Europe, particularly in France, where Trump is even more unpopular than in the United States.
For Emmanuel Macron, capturing Trump’s heart risked turning the rest of the world’s stomachs.
But somehow, with the suave moves of an amorous fictional Frenchman, he pulled it off. Of course, this romance was driven by cold calculation. And that was the secret of Monsieur Macron’s success. He wanted to prove he is, in fact, the Trump whisperer, capable of coaxing Trump away from his worst instincts. More specifically, Macron wanted to persuade Trump not to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, not to remove US forces from Syria, and to return the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
From the moment he arrived, the physicality of his political maneuvers was something to behold. A relationship that started last May with a legendary bone-crushing handshake and continued in Paris with perhaps the longest handshake in recorded history, moved to US soil with a festival of macho touching, with endless, frequently awkward interactions.
The two men competed to see who could touch the other more. There were backslaps and backrubs. Every handshake required a tap with a third hand, a squeeze with a fourth one. There was the unforgettable “dandruff brush off” by Trump, and the “I love this guy,” after Macron kissed him following a press conference.
The body language detonated all manner of primate behavior analysis. The two were clearly in a competition for dominance. Other experts detected genuine affection.
The back rubs appeared to produce some results. He appeared to convince Trump that leaving Syria would open the country to Iran, and by combining Iran and Syria and proposing a “new deal” – a renegotiation of the nuclear agreement that would, among other things, address Iran’s activities in Syria and Yemen – he left Trump intrigued. “I think we will have a good shot at doing a much bigger, maybe, deal,” the President mused in Trumpian syntax, “maybe not deal.”
But that was all a means to an end. Trump, who has presided over a historic plummet in international approval for US leadership, wanted to show he has friends, and wanted to enlist France’s support on the global stage. Macron needed this trip to cement his alliance with Washington, so he could show he is the new leader of Europe.
With Trump in his corner, Macron addressed Congress, the American people and, really, the world. In a rhetorical pirouette, his Wednesday speech delivered a repudiation of much of what Trump stands for.
Macron brought members of Congress – both houses, both parties – to their feet, proving that there is common ground in US politics, a surprise to many Americans.
He started by speaking the language of freedom, which resonates in this country. But then he seemed to tacitly refer to Trump when he spoke against nationalism, against fearmongering, against isolationism. Nationalism “can be tempting,” he said, “but closing the door to the world … will not douse but inflame the fears of our citizens.” He spoke of the threats to the global order, warning that “what we cherish is at stake. What we love is in danger.” He called on the United States to lead the defense of the values and institutions of the free world that it helped promote and defend.
He warned against protectionism, against “securing current industries” rather than “transforming our economies to meet the global challenge.”
He admonished on climate change, saying, “There is no Planet B,” and adding, “I’m sure, one day, the United States will come back and join the Paris Agreement.” He said the United States, along with its allies, needs to lead in the defense of the global order.
The United States, Macron was saying, remains the indispensable nation. And until the president of the United States returns to the role of advocate for human rights, democracy and multilateralism, Macron would be the one nudging the current President in that direction. And if that requires kissing him, praising him, and whispering in his ear, he showed he was up to the task.
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His audience understood exactly what he was doing. It was a masterful performance for a man tackling a nearly impossible mission. No wonder the entire Congress gave him a lengthy standing ovation.