French president Emmanuel Macron gave his long-awaited speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, part of his state visit to the United States during which he intends to get concrete concessions out of President Trump. The congressional address was his way of displaying power ahead of those negotiations.
Macron opened his speech with a much-expected history lesson. He stressed the important bond that exists between the United States and the French Republic, mentioned Lafayette and George Washington, and garnered frequent standing ovations (which are uncommon in Europe). The French president then went into the details of why he is in the United States in the first place: to lobby for his agenda. Key issues he’d like American support on include: keeping alive the Iran deal, rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, continuing to exempt France on Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, and military support in Syria. In return, Trump gets the optics of having a powerful European friend on the world stage, something he’s tried very hard to play up in the last few days. Macron even referenced this friendship by joking about hugs and kisses being essential in French-American diplomatic relationships.
Interestingly Macron’s speech contained very few mentions of intervention in Syria. In fact, in its initial reviews, the French press didn’t mention Syria once. This was a contrast to his recent speech in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg when he went after those who oppose military action in Syria, laying down his own “red line” when it comes to the use of chemical weapons. Voices in the U.S, particularly in the conservative camp, have generally been more skeptical of attacking Syria than their European counterparts, so that may be why he stayed quieter. Macron relies on Trump’s support for his airstrikes, because otherwise he would risk being abandoned by Germany (which didn’t participate in the bombings) and the UK (which is tied up with Brexit), and left alone on the world stage. It takes two to warmonger.
On the Paris climate accords, Macron had clear words and they divided the room. He talked about the need to address the urgency of climate change, and said he wishes the U.S would rejoin the deal. He initially sounded conciliatory, saying he understands there are disagreements between France and the U.S on this issue. He added that this would not necessarily be the case forever, presumably as an indication that he doesn’t expect Trumpism to have a major effect on the future of American politics. He then proceeded to cause some uproar. Following his zinger last year that we should “make the planet great again,” which itself followed Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris deal, Macron introduced the maxim “There is no Planet B,” which should get him a lot of media attention.
All this obviously ignores that the Paris accord is a declaration of intentions more than it is a binding agreement. If Trump were to rejoin it, nothing would prevent him from overstepping the set targets regardless.
Regardless, this was the only instance in which Macron deliberately divided the house between Republicans and Democrats. Otherwise he surfed the wave, portraying himself as a mediator. On the Iran deal, he first asserted that France would stand by its commitments, yet seemed optimistic about finding a compromise that would include the United States. He then earned a long round of applause for saying that “Iran shall never possess any nuclear weapons.”
This turned out to be Macron’s general theme. He smuggled his agenda into a speech that flattered the United States and invoked American pride, that showed respect for veterans and reiterated America’s role in the West, the sorts of things that congressmen have to clap for. He took this double act as far as openly criticizing nationalism, which was welcomed despite Trump sometimes being identified with the “nationalist” label. Indeed, that Macron mixed the uplifting message of freedom into this segment made the applause inevitable. Democrats stood immediately, while some Republicans can be seen reluctantly getting up and then sitting down after only a few claps. This mastery of the crowd shows that Macron’s speech was well rehearsed and that he arrived with a perfect sense of the environment he found himself in. One thing is for certain: the media reviews are going to be fantastic.
Over in Europe, however, the enthusiasm is less pronounced. Macron’s charm offensive has gone largely unnoticed in France, as the country is paralyzed with public infrastructure strikes, universities blocked by radical left-wing students, and the violent evacuation of a construction site with the help of 2,000 police officers. Macron loves to play king of Europe at the European Parliament and savior of the world in Washington D.C.; back home the reality is more complicated, as his sagging approval ratings demonstrate.
Still, don’t misunderstand: Macron’s address to Congress was “the art of the speech.” It mediated on issues where he expects cooperation with Trump, it was adversarial on the points where he could promote his social media presence, and it was statesmanlike for the history books. Macron is a brilliant public speaker, there’s no denying it. He divided America’s house to his advantage with a sly charm that should have all speechwriters taking notes.
The informed reader, however, should be aware that under the façade of the eloquent speeches lies the agenda of more intervention in Syria, something that Macron likely discussed in private with Trump. When millions of lives and billions of dollars are on the line, the zingers don’t sound as fun.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.