It was the cracking of knuckles heard around the world. During a visit to France, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron put their relationship on display for the entire world as an extended, strong handshake exemplified the close bonds between France and the United States. as well as the opposing points of views held by the two leaders—at least, that’s how the internet saw it.
That handshake went viral, with many seeing it as an example of how the two Presidents were in opposition to one another. After all, each had been a part of a contentious election that pitted ethnonationalism against traditional liberalism. Each represented a different side of that fight, and each had come away with the win.
However, time has shown that the handshake was not a display of anger or contention—it was two men showing their respect for one another, as Macron and Trump have defied the narratives put on them by so many citizens of their respective countries, surprising the world with their close relationship.
The French and U.S. alliance traces all the way back to when the French supported the American revolutionaries and were then inspired to have their own Revolution, establishing their own democracy, even if in a slightly bloodier manner. Over the centuries, the countries have worked together time and time again, teaming up in the World Wars, officially allying through NATO, and working together in the Persian Gulf war. While relations fluctuated, the friendship has been generally strong with each country having its own political dynamics but working together and remaining allies. It is a historic friendship, with connections that go back centuries.
The United States elected Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, a win for populist nationalism and a defeat of a liberal dynasty. And France, not even a year later, elected Emmanuel Macron over Marine LePen, a rebuttal of her nationalist politics and a win for centrism. Many Americans discussing the French election seemed to be living vicariously through it, seeing Macron’s win as a rebuttal of Trump’s. While that does not necessarily make logical sense, the emotions are understandable. People were so shocked by Trump’s election that they wanted to see something that fit into their schematic perspective of the world around them. Macron’s win made sense, made them happy.
It was that same emotional attachment to the election that made so many Americans sure that Macron and Trump would be bitter rivals. But that narrative, of the French election as a direct rebuttal of the American one, was simply false. Taking a step back, it makes sense that no European leader, particularly not a young newcomer like Macron, would ever seek to make an enemy of the United States. Upon his first visit to France, Trump and Macron shared the infamous handshake, and while the internet read it negatively, it has proven to have been the beginning of a strong relationship. It was not unintentional. Macron understood that it was the small things that would gain Trump’s respect—things like a tough handshake with unbroken eye contact.
It did not happen by accident. Macron has been said to have studied videos of Trump’s handshakes and greetings, so he knew exactly what the man was looking for. He even has aides monitoring the most accessible thermometer of Trump’s mood, his infamous Twitter feed, so that he is constantly aware of the mood of the President.
Macron understands Trump, potentially better than many American liberals do. He loves the pomp and circumstance of the presidency more than the actual lawmaking, so Macron made sure to pull out all the ceremonial stops for him on the first visit. The trip included everything from a tour of Napoleon’s tomb to a military parade. Additionally, that handshake showed Trump that Macron was not the weak sort of liberal he so often decries, but a man worthy of his friendship, one who would not break a handshake.
This week, Macron is on his own visit to the United States, and already Trump is replicating the ceremony of his own trip to France, welcoming Macron and his wife with open arms, presenting him with a ceremonial welcome that includes a “Review of the Troops,” complete with 500 American service members, and a tour of Mount Vernon.
Now, Trump probably thinks this displays his own strength to Macron. However, Macron has quickly taken on the title of the Leader of the Free World, and his youth, good looks, and close relationships with both Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, show that Macron is clearly the one in control of this relationship. This further empowers Western Europe, who is now the world leader in the main issues of the 21st century, such as climate change, on which the United States is lagging desperately—and obliviously—behind.
Their physical closeness has continued, with Trump even feeling comfortable enough to flick a piece of dandruff off of Macron’s suit—and announcing it to the room, and then saying: “We have to make him perfect,” he said. “He is perfect.” Donald Trump, who has struggled to find allies among his friends and advisors, is showing an affection for the French President that virtually no one else gets, and it is all because Macron played his cards perfectly.
Emmanuel Macron seemed to many like a neophyte who happened upon a moderately powerful job, but he has shown himself to be much more masterful than that. And his surprise friendship with the President of the United States shows that he is creating personal allies that will serve him well as he seeks to increase France’s power on the world stage.
Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.