PARIS – When President Donald Trump appears in public for the first time since revelations that his son appeared to welcome Russian help in the U.S. election, it will be in Paris, a city he has repeatedly derided – and at the side of a French leader best known to Americans as the young man with the endless handshake.
“Paris isn’t Paris any longer,” Trump said in February, implying the city had been ruined by jihadi attacks. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said just last month as he announced the U.S. would leave the Paris climate agreement.
But Trump is not the only politician who can use Paris to make a symbolic point.
When Trump arrives in the French capital on Thursday, it will be as French President Emmanuel Macron’s guest of honour, with a private tour of Napoleon’s tomb, dinner at the Eiffel Tower and, to top off the Paris tourist trifecta, a seat at the tribune as American troops open the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Elysees.
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It was Macron, who at 39 is modern France’s youngest president, whose handshake with Trump left both men with white knuckles and clenched jaws. Macron later described it as “a moment of truth” between them.
Still, Macron extended an invitation to Trump to join the national day celebrations, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I. And the meetings on Thursday have been billed by both governments as a time to deepen the ties that bind the U.S. and France.
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“What our two countries share is stronger (than our differences), given our peoples and our histories and our values as well. So yes, there is a disagreement, like I said to President Trump, and then I said it publicly, because there is nothing to hide. That being said, it does not prevent us from co-operating in many fields,” Macron said Saturday.
Thursday’s meetings are expected to centre on fighting terrorism and defence policy, two areas where French-American co-operation has traditionally been strong.
There is little downside for Macron.
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“It’s important to establish a relationship that is functional, for both Mr. Macron and Mr. Trump, to know where the other stands, so they can speak to each other, to facilitate trans-Atlantic relations,” said Yannick Mireur, a political scientist who follows U.S. politics.
The greater risk is for Trump, said Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute for International Relations.
“There is a Russian sword of Damocles over Mr. Trump’s head and it’s been there since he took office. At the same time, Emmanuel Macron during his campaign and at his first meeting with Vladimir Putin was critical of Russian interference,” Gomart said.
In emails made public this week, an intermediary told Donald Trump Jr. that a Russian attorney had negative information about Democrat Hillary Clinton that was part of the Russian government’s efforts to help Trump in the election campaign. “I love it,” the then-candidate’s son responded.
The revelations raise new questions about whether the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Moscow during the election, a charge the president has denied for months. And it points those questions more directly at the inner circle of Trump’s own family.
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Macron supports intervention against Syria’s government in response to its use of chemical weapons and could prove an important ally as the Trump administration seeks to increase pressure against Damascus. But in doing so, they’ll need to tackle the issue of Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, something Trump has only passively acknowledged.
The visit will also gauge whether Trump and Macron can find consensus on any of the critical issues on which they openly disagree. After Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, Macron, a staunch advocate of research to combat global warming, urged “all responsible citizens,” including American scientists and researchers, to bring their fight against climate change to France.
Trump and Macron are also scheduled to hold a joint news conference, and the two leaders and their wives will end a busy day of meetings with a lavish dinner at Jules Verne, at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Macron became France’s youngest president when he won a runoff against far-right opponent Marine Le Pen in April. Despite no political experience, he pulled together an overwhelming legislative majority in France’s parliament and recent polls show him with strong public popularity.
For Trump, whose approval ratings at home and abroad have sunk since he took office, experts say leveraging Macron’s popularity could improve his administration’s image among European allies.
In Germany, Trump severely criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel during his election campaign, claiming she was “ruining” Germany by allowing in hundreds of thousands of refugees. Since then, however, the two leaders have had several conversations, both in person and on the phone, and developed a working relationship.
Still, there are many points of contention, including the decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Merkel also suggested Europe needs to take on more responsibilities itself because it can no longer rely on the U.S.
“Macron doesn’t have the same constraints as Angela Merkel, who is entering an election campaign in which her opponents would love to make it a campaign about Donald Trump,” said Jeffrey Rathke, deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Merkel, as it happens, will also be meeting Macron on Thursday – both she and Trump will converge on the French presidential palace within hours of each other. But Merkel will be gone before they can cross paths.
Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Washington and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.