Emmanuel Macron’s carefully cultivated rapport with US President Donald Trump has seen France edge out the US-UK “special relationship” as the French leader heads to the US on a state visit following the weekend’s strikes on Syria.
Less than five years ago, France was ready to act when Barack Obama drew his infamous “red line” on chemical attacks in Syria. But when the US president drew back from his threat of military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it stunned and embarrassed his French counterpart, leaving François Hollande with a lingering sense of resentment. “This signal was interpreted as weakness from the international community,” Hollande later complained.
History has not repeated itself – and that’s a good sign for Obama’s and Hollande’s successors as Trump prepares to host Macron April 24 on the first official state visit of the Trump presidency.
On Saturday early morning, as US, French and British missiles rained down on three sites in Syria in a response to Assad’s suspected chemical attack on Douma, Paris was right by Washington’s side. France used five missile-equipped frigates based in the Mediterranean, in addition to five Rafale fighter jets, five Mirage 2000 jets and two AWAC radar-equipped planes. The attack also marked a first for the French military, with an inaugural combat operation use of the naval-borne MCDN missile system.
In contrast to the robust French display of military might and hardware, the UK fired just eight out of more than 100 missiles fired early Saturday, using four Tornado GR4 warplanes.
US-French military relations have come a long way from the “cheese-eating-surrender-monkey” days of the George W. Bush era. Back in 2003, when France refused to join the US-led invasion in Iraq, earning the ire of US neocons beating the war drums, the diplomatic focus was on the “special relationship” between US and Britain.
Today, British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to be relegated to symbolic partner status. Trump and Macron meanwhile, seem to be in the throes of a ‘bromance’ born out of respect generated from a never-ending handshake and nurtured by invitations to military parades and Eiffel Tower dinners designed to pander to Trump’s boyish, parvenu predilections.
“France was one of the leaders, we were keen to try to organise an answer to the chemical attacks in Syria that limited the consequences against Russia. Nobody wanted a foolish military confrontation with Russia, but the West was still seeking a way to stand by our principles,” explained Julien Théron, a security analyst and lecturer at the Paris-based Sciences Po.
‘France is back in the game’
In the lead-up to the anticipated response to the Douma chemical attack, while Trump was alarming the world with his tweets on “nice and new and smart” missiles against “Gas Killing Animal” Assad, Macron was allaying fears and misgivings over France joining a military operation led by an erratic US president.
In an interview with French broadcaster TF1 Thursday, Macron tackled Russian misinformation assaults that claimed, at various points, that the Douma chemical attack did not occur, or were carried out by Syrian rebels, or by Britain. “We have proof that…chemical weapons were used,” said Macron.
Forty-eight hours later, the French foreign ministry followed through on Macron’s assessment, releasing its official assessment of the April 7 attack and Syria’s clandestine chemical weapons programme.
The on-target messaging, followed by the weekend’s air strikes, effectively reintroduced Paris as a substantial actor in the Syrian conflict, a position France and its Western allies effectively relinquished over the past few years.
“Diplomacy is made up of messaging,” explained Théron. “The message is, we’re determined to reengage on Syria. What’s been going on over the past seven years is a trust game: are the parties reliable and when they say something, do they follow through with facts on the ground. The strikes have put France back in the game.”
Pragmatic Syria position
In many ways, timing and luck played their part in Macron’s ability to reassert France’s diplomatic weight in the Middle East. Macron, unlike Hollande, did not have to contend with a prevaricating counterpart in Washington. He simply had to fulfill his role as a responsible ally, countering Trump’s dangerous instincts.
But the current French president has also learned lessons from his predecessor’s track record on Syria. While Hollande adopted a maximalist “Assad must go” position — which exposed his inability to act unilaterally in 2013, when the US and Britain failed to intervene – Macron has kept his message focused on a deterrence against the use of chemical weapons.
As many analysts have noted, Saturday’s airstrikes do not change the balance of power in the Syrian conflict nor is it likely to affect the outcome of the war.
When Jupiter meets Mars
On the domestic front, Macron’s more limited and pragmatic position — rather than a regime change discourse — is an easier sell for a populace suspicious of their young president’s “Jupiterian” tendencies. Jupiter is the Roman god of sky, thunder and lightning, and the French are wary of their youngest president-ever delivering thunderbolt instructions.
Macron’s biggest domestic critics on his Syria policy front come from the French extreme left and hard right. Both right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen and far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon have said they oppose military action in Syria.
But Théron dismissed the impact of pushback from both camps. “The far right and far left are very keen to criticise the Western countries they belong to more than authoritarian regimes, contradicting democracy,” he said. “They both claimed the consequences of this action would risk triggering World War III. But the strikes occurred and there’s no World War III. Macron will be able to override the criticism of the far left and right because the French people by and large have no sympathy for the Syrian regime.”
In the long term, Théron believes Macron could use his now enhanced standing with Trump to try to convince the US president to work towards trying to reach a political settlement in Syria. “Macron didn’t play the game of criticising Trump,” said Théron. Despite disagreements over Trump pulling out of the Paris climate change accord and his positions on trade, Macron “stayed focused on asserting that France and the US continue to be close allies,” explained Théron. “I think it was very clever.”
When he arrives in Washington on April 24, Macron will receive a full course version of American pomp and splendour, complete with a 21-gun salute and formal state dinner. But behind the charm offensive, Macron, as leader of a post-Brexit EU’s foremost military power, is likely to push heavily for a US engagement towards finding a political solution to end the Syrian crisis. Whether his irascible host — who fancies himself as a war president, a sort of Mars, the Roman god of war — will be willing to listen is another matter. But Macron at least has a better shot of getting the US president’s ear than most other world leaders.