We’ve always had a problem with the French. The women are too thin and elegant and the men too self-contained and self-controlled – another form of elegance. This tends to make proudly loud and casual Americans feel inadequate, which makes proudly loud and casual Americans quite angry. The French have also mastered the art of deadly irony you might not get until it’s too late, and subtle ridicule that sounds like praise, until you think about what was just said. It’s an art form.
It hurts. The suave Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin – who ran marathons and wrote literary criticism in his spare time – smiled and told us that our plan for immediate war with Iraq was ill-advised. It was as if he were explaining this to a petulant child he was nevertheless fond of. At the UN in early February, 2003, he almost laughed at Colin Powell when Powell asked for the UN to go to war with us, or at least to tell us our little (that is, specific and limited) war was fine with them. Dominique de Villepin, with that bemused smile of the loving adult for the confused child who needs a little help with his tantrum, said wait, let the inspectors finish – there may be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and even if by some odd chance there are, there are better ways to handle this. And of course the guy was right. It just took ten years for us to realize it.
Consider the details:
On 20 January 2003, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said, “We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution,” although France believed that Iraq may have had an ongoing chemical and nuclear weapons program. Villepin went on to say that he believed the presence of UN weapons inspectors had frozen Iraq’s weapons programs. France also suggested that it would veto any resolution allowing military intervention offered by the US or Britain.
They saw the danger, which was actually now contained by the inspections, but saw bigger dangers:
The most important French speech during the crisis was made by De Villepin at the Security Council on the 14 February 2003, after Hans Blix presented his detailed report. De Villepin detailed the three major risks of a “premature recourse to the military option”, especially the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region”. He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace”. He emphasized that “real progress is beginning to be apparent” through the inspections, and that, “given the present state of our research and intelligence, in liaison with our allies”, the alleged links between al-Qaeda and the regime in Baghdad explained by Colin Powell were not established.
He concluded by referring to the dramatic experience of “old Europe” during World War II. This “impassioned” speech “against war on Iraq, or immediate war on Iraq”, won “an unprecedented applause”, reported the BBC’s Sir David Frost.
That hurt. We never forgave them. They made us look like fools, and then we made ourselves look like fools. They had been right all along – bad enough – but they had been elegantly right. That was worse.
Now they’re at it again. It was that NATO meeting. Jon Henley reported this:
As handshakes go, it was unusually intense: a fierce and protracted mano a mano of white knuckles, crunched bones, tightened jaws and fixed smiles that sent the internet and the world’s media into a spin.
It was also, Emmanuel Macron has revealed, entirely intentional. At his first major appearance on the world stage, the 39-year-old French president displayed a relaxed confidence and steely purpose that altogether belied his youth and inexperience.
“My handshake with him – it wasn’t innocent,” Macron told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper in an interview on Sunday. “It’s not the be-all and the end-all of a policy, but it was a moment of truth.”
The much commented-upon power play, during which each man held the other’s gaze for a long moment, was described by one observer as a “screw you in handshake form”. It ended when the US president, after two attempts, finally succeeding in disengaging.
Trump folded. The man who boasts that he dominates all others – and wins, always – lost this one. He was the one who was dominated, by a Frenchman. Quelle horreur!
It’s a French thing. Relaxed confidence and steely purpose are another form of elegance, of course, but it was more than that. George W. Bush was a bully. De Villepin was relatively gentle with Bush’s guy, Colin Powell. Explain the facts, in a pleasant way, in simple terms, and let those facts sit out there for everyone to see – and smile, in a friendly way. Wait a beat or two. The bully will be befuddled. There’s no way to counterattack when there no direct attack. De Villepin was a sly bastard. He’s French, you know.
That won’t work with Donald Trump, who is ten times the bully that Bush was. He counterattacks when he’s not attacked. Donald Trump only has to imagine an attack, and Macron knows his man:
“Donald Trump, the Turkish president, or the Russian president, see relationships in terms of a balance of power,” Macron said. “That doesn’t bother me. I don’t believe in diplomacy by public abuse, but in my bilateral dialogues I won’t let anything pass.”
The French president, who had never held elected office before decisively defeating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in this month’s runoff, added: “That’s how you ensure you are respected. You have to show you won’t make small concessions – not even symbolic ones.”
That’s the Art of the Deal – someone should explain that to Donald Trump – and Macron is working on the details of his sort of deadly French elegance:
He is eager to cultivate a more dignified, presidential image for the office, making clear – though without spelling it out – he feels the bling-obsessed excesses of Nicolas Sarkozy and gossipy intimacy of François Hollande, his two immediate predecessors, had combined to diminish it.
Macron doesn’t need to worry about that:
Macron and Trump met for the first time for lunch before a gathering of European and NATO leaders in Brussels last Thursday. They confronted each other again later that afternoon, on a blue welcome carpet outside NATO headquarters.
During that encounter, Macron pointedly swerved past Trump to embrace German chancellor Angela Merkel. He then shook hands with the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, before finally greeting the US leader.
Seemingly out for revenge, Trump responded by yanking the French president’s hand hard towards him in an apparent attempt to re-establish dominance – a technique he has been seen applying in the past, notably with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
That didn’t work either. You want to shake my hand? Fine – do you want an autograph too? There was no revenge. Trump was trying too hard, and Macron was on a roll:
In Italy, Macron struck up an instant rapport with the 45-year-old Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, TV cameras capturing images of the two chatting and strolling to the summit venue together – in contrast to Trump, 70, who waited to get a lift in golf buggy.
“Justin has been inspiring,” Macron said afterwards. “We belong to a generation of leaders that will deeply renew practices and a vision of global affairs.” The French leader also clearly gets on well with Merkel, whom he has now met three times in the first two weeks of his five-year presidency.
Theresa May, for her part, appeared touched when Macron expressed his condolences to her in English after the Manchester terrorist attack that left 22 people dead. “We were very shocked, because we know how this can hurt,” he said, “because they attack our young and very young people.”
Would Trump switch languages out of respect? Could he? And of course sympathy is beyond him. That’s weakness. As he said throughout his campaign, “We’ve got to stop being so nice to people, folks!”
On the other hand, Macron is leading the effort to cut no special trade deals with Britain. They’re leaving the EU – they don’t get to keep the good stuff. They can’t have it both ways, no matter what happened in Manchester. Not everything is personal. He’s not Donald Trump.
He’s also facing a bigger test:
On Syria, where extremists plotted attacks against France and where Europe’s migrant crisis began, he said the international community must talk to Russia to change the framework for getting out of the military crisis in Syria, and to “build a much more collective and integrated inclusive political solution”.
Macron will have an early opportunity to do just that when he hosts Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, at the royal palace in Versailles on Monday – a meeting that will be colored not just by tensions over Moscow’s role in Syria and Ukraine, but Putin’s support for Marine Le Pen. Observers will be watching the handshake between the two men with added interest.
In the meantime, Josh Marshall adds this:
Most of the major European and NATO leaders had already met Trump in Washington – Merkel, May, Gentiloni, Trudeau and others. But I suspect in meeting as a group, over a more extended period and in a context specifically focused on Europe and NATO there was a further realization that what they are watching from across the Atlantic is no act. Indeed, Trump appears more impulsive and erratic in person than on TV. Rather than growing into the job he’s growing into the role of aggressor.
Another, perhaps more critical realization, is suggested in this Twitter thread by Max Fisher of the Times: That is, it’s not just that Trump is greedy or impulsive or unreliable, indifferent to the North Atlantic alliance but that he is positively against it. He and Vladimir Putin are in a de facto alliance against ‘Europe’ or to put it less geographically, the liberal internationalist state system which has rested on and built out from the United States and Western Europe. In this respect, we don’t need to concern ourselves with election tampering or ‘collusion’ or just what’s behind the relationship between the two men. The relevant issue is that they appear to be operating with common goals…
This realization can’t help but be confirmed by the increasingly bizarre and incriminating revelations out of Washington – the Kushner back-channel, the Comey firing, the Oval Office meeting with Lavrov.
The President of France is talking about standing firm against predatory autocrats. And one of them is the President of the United States.
And another one of them is Vladimir Putin, who did show up in Paris on Monday, and might have wished he hadn’t. Christopher Dickey explains that:
Russian President Vladimir Putin, the wily KGB veteran, the intruder into the West’s democratic elections, the smug defender of dictators and would-be ally of Donald Trump, looked like he wanted to hide behind the curtains in the Hall of Battles at Versailles.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who is only 39 years old and took office just two weeks ago, was calm, cool, collected, and in complete control at their joint press conference Monday afternoon. He talked about the need for dialogue. But he didn’t hesitate for a second to state bluntly and publicly the priorities of France defending Western ideals, Western democracy, and, when it came down to specifics, he took firm positions on everything from Syria and Ukraine to LGBT rights in Chechnya, as well as the need to defend civil society in Russia.
Macron was diplomatic, but he twisted the knife:
At every turn – almost – he offered a way for Putin to save face by saying that where they differed there is nonetheless a continuing conversation. Even when asked about Russian attempts to influence the French elections by hacking the Macron campaign, Macron said that was something they had spoken about when Putin called him to congratulate him after his victory on May 7. “Now we are moving ahead,” said Macron.
But when asked why the Macron campaign banned from its offices reporters for RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik, two of Putin’s pet state-funded media, Macron didn’t hesitate a moment:
“Russia Today and Sputnik have been tools of influence, and they spread untruths about my person and my campaign,” said Macron. “On that point I’m not going to give an inch. Russia Today and Sputnik did not behave like organs of the press and of journalism, but as organs of lying propaganda.”
And yes, Michael Flynn accepted a big speaking fee from RT and sat next to Putin at the banquet where he spoke, and finally resigned as Trump’s national security advisor. Emmanuel Macron didn’t mention that, or that all seventeen American intelligence agencies agreed with him about what Russia had been doing around the world. Macron is concerned with France – but someone has to say these things. Trump won’t say such things.
It was a day of surprises:
Putin may have been expecting the fresh-faced French president to give him a warmer welcome. The invitation to come to France and open an exhibit at the Palace of Versailles devoted to the visit of Peter the Great three centuries ago was extended only two weeks back, after Macron became president. The two leaders had not expected to meet until the G20 in Germany in July. But Putin jumped at the chance to take the measure of the ingénue head of state.
He probably could not have anticipated – few people had – that Macron would grow so quickly into his job: wowing the cameras and his counterparts at the G7 in Sicily last week; exploiting a death-grip handshake with Trump by telling a reporter there was nothing “innocent” about it; and strolling through the streets of Taormina with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the image of new (very un-Trumpian) global leadership.
But wait, there’s more:
Even when Macron made his introductory remarks about the exhibit at Versailles, he took a shot at the aggressive defensiveness of Putin’s attempt to rebuild an empire in spite of European opposition, and to weaken Europe at every opportunity. Peter the Great, said Macron, was the “symbol of a Russia that wanted to open up to Europe.”
Macron, ignoring Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in the early 19th century, said that since Peter the Great’s visit to Paris and Versailles in 1717, the dialogue between the two countries has gone on for 300 years.
Then Macron got down to substance. “On Syria, I have reminded President Putin of what our priorities are,” he said, starting with those general principles on which they can agree: the need to fight terrorism and eradicate ISIS; the desire to “preserve the Syrian state” and open the way to a democratic transition. There was no insistence – as there had been with Macron’s predecessor – that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go. But that was implied, and may have been explicit in private.
Then Macron drew what he called two very clear “red lines”: use of chemical weapons, which would invite “immediate retaliation”; and any effort to impede humanitarian corridors to besieged populations.
Macron was reasonable – Assad can stay, maybe – but Putin was getting hammered:
Macron also said he’d reminded Putin of the importance of civil society in Russia, and of human rights, including those of LGBT people in Chechnya who have been put in what some human rights activists describe as concentration camps.
Looking around at the dozens of enormous paintings of France’s most famous battles in the 18th and 19th centuries, Macron cited them as proof of what happens when dialogue fails.
Putin clearly was chafing as he listened, and also when he spoke. Alluding indirectly to the sanctions against Russia imposed after it subverted and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, he noted that 500 French companies are operating in his country and none have left. He mentioned the dangers posed by North Korea and its nuclear ambitions, which Macron had not talked about.
This was not going well:
Once reporters started asking questions, the scene heated up. “Meddling in elections?” Putin declared that he and Macron hadn’t spoken about that and Macron was not interested, “So as far as I am concerned the question doesn’t exist.” To which Macron made it clear that they had indeed spoken about that issue two weeks ago, and “moving ahead” does not mean he has forgotten for a moment what went on.
Putin got especially incensed when asked about the obvious support he gave to Macron rival Marine Le Pen, a quasi-fascist ultra-nationalist he received at the Kremlin during the French presidential campaign. He claimed that was perfectly natural since he supported many of the same things that she did, such as national sovereignty (and by implication the destruction of the European Union). She had also been supportive of Russia, he said. (By supporting the annexation of Crimea, in fact.)
Putin said those were the reasons he received Le Pen, not because of any illusion that she might actually win. He and his people read the polls, he said. They were not “children.”
But what Putin could not get around was the fact that he had in fact very publicly backed a loser, his cyber-agents of one description and another had hacked the winner, and he and his policies had failed spectacularly – at least in France.
The dominator was dominated. The bully was caught in a lie. This is how it’s done. Now Putin knows how Colin Powell, and by extension George Bush, felt back in 2003 after that UN business – outclassed – and Dickey adds this:
This is very, very early in Macron’s term, and he has five years to go. But for a demoralized Europe that only weeks ago seemed to be struggling to defend basic values and clinging to the frumpy charisma of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron is like a shot of adrenaline; a model of youthful energy who appears able, indeed, to put the wunder in wunderkind.
Oh, and by the way, the handshake wasn’t much:
As Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived at the Versailles Palace on Monday to meet Emmanuel Macron, the recently elected leader of France, all eyes were on the handshake…
Outside the Versailles Palace, reporters waited eagerly for a potentially tense Franco-Russian handshake. As Putin stepped out of his car, many people pulled out their cameras to capture the greeting between the two leaders. But anyone expecting fireworks would probably have been disappointed: Macron and Putin shook hands amiably for seven seconds before heading inside.
Other videos show that inside the palace, the pair shook hands again – for about six seconds.
And that was that. Macron had already made his point, and Donald Trump is a special case. Donald Trump doesn’t do issues – he’s a bit hazy on them. Donald Trump dominates, and that’s enough. His base is satisfied with that. That made him a reality-show star and perhaps made him president – but Putin comes from the real world, where a handshake is not deeply symbolic. Other things matter more – but, as a rule, don’t mess with an elegant Frenchman. That elegant Frenchman will make you look like a fool, and smile doing it.
What are you going to do? Call those things Freedom Fries again?