Subtle Ridicule That Sounds Like Praise

Emmanuel Macron invited President Trump for the Bastille Day celebrations last year – the big military parade down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées – but there was a lot of pomp and circumstance before that – formal ceremonies of all sorts – just the sort of thing Donald Trump loves. He expects to be treated like a king – his due after all. He’s insulted if he isn’t treated like royalty, so Macron laid it on thick – and he didn’t mention that the French beheaded one of the last of the pesky kings they once had over there. Donald Trump expects to be treated like a king? Treat the guy like a king on the day that celebrates beheading the lot of them – family included. Trump didn’t get the joke. The French did.

Macron is good at this sort of thing. Macron mocked Donald Trump at the NATO summit with that absurdly manly long and aggressive handshake. Trump was puzzled. He was supposed to be the manly one. He didn’t get the joke – displays of “manliness” are childish and absurd – and after Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, Macron released a video addressing the American people directly, in English. Come join us here in France. We can “make the planet great again” – which was typical sly French ridicule. Trump’s vision for America and America alone may be childishly narrow, but Macron didn’t say that. He didn’t have say that. Change one word. Show, don’t tell.

There’s nothing new here. The suave Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin – who ran marathons and wrote literary criticism in his spare time – did the same thing. He smiled and told us that our plan for immediate war with Iraq was a bit misguided – as if he were explaining this to a petulant child of which he was nevertheless fond. At the UN in early February, 2003, he smiled when Colin Powell asked for the UN to go to war along 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.

Colin Powell was livid. America was livid – French Fries became Freedom Fries – but of course the suave Frenchman had been right. It just took ten years for us to realize that, and Macron is the same. Show the childish (or childlike) American how it’s done. Shortly after he was elected, Macron dressed down Vladimir Putin, face to face at Versailles, telling Putin to cut the crap – don’t deny you messed around in the French election. Putin was stunned. Trump would never do such a thing. Macron showed Trump how it’s done – in a sly way – and showed that such things are not that hard at all.

Show, don’t tell – but perhaps that’s why 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 defiantly casual Americans feel inadequate, which makes proudly loud and defiantly 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, and effusive praise can be the deadliest form of ridicule. Stand next to a fool. Say he’s wonderful. Pause. Wait a bit. Wait a bit more. Say nothing else. Let the fool smile and preen. Everyone will get the joke.

That may be what Macron is up to. The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung does report this:

French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday delivered an impassioned call for multilateralism and U.S. engagement in the world, saying it was “an essential part of our confidence in the future.”

Speaking to a joint meeting of Congress, amid frequent standing ovations and cheers, Macron recalled the long history of U.S.-French relations, and the countries’ shared values and culture in areas as diverse as democracy and freedom, human and civil rights, literature, jazz and the “Me Too” movement.

But, he warned, “This is a time of determination and courage. What we cherish is at stake. What we love is in danger. We have no choice but to prevail. And together we shall prevail.”

Emmanuel Macron, however, has an odd concept of what “together” means:

Much of what he said, although couched in stirring and global terms, posed a direct challenge to the Trump administration and to the U.S. president with whom Macron has said he has a special relationship.

Macron expressed hope that the United States would reenter the Paris climate accord, which President Trump exited early in his administration.

“Some people think that securing current industries and their jobs is more urgent than transforming our economies to meet the challenge of global change,” he said. “I hear… but we must find a transition to a low-carbon economy. What is the meaning of our life, really, if we work and live destroying the planet, while sacrificing the future of our children?”

He didn’t mention his new best buddy, Donald Trump, but he didn’t have to, and there was this:

Macron also called for resolving of trade disputes through negotiation and the World Trade Organization, indirectly criticizing Trump’s imposition of tariffs. “I believe we can build the right answers by negotiating through the WTO and building cooperative solutions,” he said.

“We wrote these rules,” he said. “We should follow them.” France and the European Union are seeking exemptions from steel and aluminum tariffs due to be imposed May 1.

More broadly, the free world needed to “push aside” the forces of “isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism,” Macron said, and to “shape our common answers to the global threats that we are facing” with an updated multilateralism, lest the post-World War II institutions that “you built,” including the United Nations and NATO, be destroyed.

“This requires more than ever the United States’ involvement, as your role was decisive in creating and safeguarding the free world. The United States is the one who invented this multilateralism; you are the one who has to help to preserve and reinvent it,” he said.

Again, he didn’t mention Donald Trump, but he didn’t have to, and there was this:

On Iran, he repeated his support for the nuclear deal, even as he outlined a four-part “comprehensive” strategy to address upheaval in the Middle East, even if Trump opts out of the agreement.

“Our objective is clear. Iran shall never possess any nuclear weapons,” he said as the chamber rose with applause. “Not now. Not in five years. Not in ten years. Never.”

“But this policy should never lead us to war in the Middle East,” he said. “Let us not replicate past mistakes. Let us not be naive on one side. Let us not create new wars on the other side.”

“There is an existing framework, the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] to control the activity of Iran. We signed it, at the initiative of the United States. We signed it, both the United States and France. That is why we cannot say we should get rid of it like that.”

Again, he didn’t mention Donald Trump. He was simply showing what could be done, without war, showing what any sensible American president would do, without mentioning the current American president just down the street at the time, but later he did admit that this sort of indirectness might not work:

In a solo news conference before his return home Wednesday night, Macron said that he was under no illusions about Trump’s views on the Iran deal. “I don’t know what his decision will be, but a rational look at comments he has made indicate to me he will not do his utmost to preserve it,” he said. While he was still “advocating” retention of the deal, he said, “I’m not a masochist.”

That’s resignation, or realism:

Asked how he could say he was “extremely pleased” about his three-day visit here and praise his warm relationship with Trump while outlining positions opposite to those of the U.S. president on climate, trade and a host of other issues, Macron said: “I think it’s life. It’s the same thing in all families.”

“Let’s share the disagreements. I don’t see it in my interest, in French interests, to just say, ‘I disagree and I don’t want to speak with you.’ It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s best to say we’ve been partners for a long time; we are allies.” He would push his own ideas, Macron said, and hope that the “strong relationship” could help in reaching shared objectives.

In short, he did what he could, but there was this bit of slyness:

On Wednesday afternoon, Macron visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial with civil rights leader John Lewis, a Democratic member of the U.S. House from Georgia, and held a town hall meeting with students at George Washington University. Mirroring similar gatherings that President Barack Obama held on his foreign travels, Macron removed his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves and answered questions while walking around on a stage.

He went full-Obama in public, with John Lewis, the civil rights icon. Trump and Lewis don’t get along. Trump and the Congressional Black Caucus don’t get along. Trump has called those protesting black NFL players sons of bitches. Trump said there were “a lot of good people” in that white nationalist crowd in Charlottesville, where one of them ran down and killed a woman. Trump and most of black America don’t get along, and he hides from black America – no town halls or anything. Macron mentioned none of that. He simply showed what what any sensible American president would do. Show, don’t tell.

That’s deadly, and E. J. Dionne saw this:

The early story line about President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron focused on their “bromance” and Trump’s puerile claim to dominance when he brushed what he said was dandruff off Macron’s suit. But on the last day of his state visit on Wednesday, Macron showed he will not be trifled with. He used a speech to a joint session of Congress to engage in a full-scale takedown of Trumpism, wrapped in a love letter to the United States and a call on Americans to live up to the values embedded in our own history.

So, who loves America and the values embedded in its history? Show, don’t tell:

Macron, speaking forcefully in English, held nothing back. He warned against “the illusion of nationalism” and politicians who “play with fear and anger.” He brought home the nature of the menace by alluding to the U.S. president who led the war against fascism. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” declared Macron, channeling Franklin D. Roosevelt.

That was sly and nasty. America once had Franklin Roosevelt, who said there’s nothing to fear, so don’t get wrapped up in fear and paranoia, which ruins everything. America now has Donald Trump, listing one dire threat after another day after day, telling America to be afraid, very afraid, which he says will make everything all better. What happened? What have you American people done? But Macon explained none of that and he didn’t ask those questions. He didn’t have to. Pause. Wait a bit. Wait a bit more. Say nothing else. Everyone will get it.

And there was this:

Macron predicted that, despite Trump’s abandonment of the Paris climate accord, the United States would one day rejoin it. Turning Trump’s signature campaign theme on its author, the French president issued his patented call to “make our planet great again.” For good measure, he pointedly asked climate change deniers to confront the consequences if they proved to be wrong. “Let us face it,” Macron said, “there is no Planet B.”

It’s hard to argue with that, or with this:

If Trump underscored his permissive attitudes toward autocracy by referring on Tuesday to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as “very open” and “very honorable,” Macron spoke of the obligation to stand up for democracy and against authoritarian threats across the globe. And he reminded his American listeners that the chief architect of the multilateral institutions defending democratic ideals was – the United States of America.

“The United States is the one who invented this multilateralism,” Macron said. “You are the one now who has to help to preserve and reinvent it.”

“What we cherish is at stake,” he added. “What we love is in danger.”

Again, he didn’t name the danger, but Dionne notes that he really did, in all sorts of ways:

Again and again, the French leader took on the policies Trump has pursued over the past fifteen months. “Massive deregulation,” which is what Trump has been up to, is a bad idea, Macron said. The founder of a new down-the-middle French political party may well be a centrist, but he held nothing back in assailing “the abuses of globalized capitalism” and “financial speculation.” He also urged joint U.S.-European regulation to protect the users of social media.

And he put all he said in the context of a thoroughly Gallic nod to rationality. “Without reason, without truth,” he said, “there is no real democracy.”

Donald Trump’s new best buddy just knifed him, in that artful and subtle French way, but Macron seems to be on a mission:

Macron’s speech here came in the wake of his vigorous address last week to the European Parliament in defense of democracy (“Faced with the authoritarianism which surrounds us on all sides, the answer must not be authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy”). Read in tandem, the two addresses make clear he has decided that his path to history lies in an unambiguous stand against the global influence of right-wing nationalism and the spread of autocracy.

Meanwhile, Trump is fond of Putin and Erdogan and Kim Jong Un is “very open” and “very honorable” – so Macron, as Dionne sees it, has chosen sides:

Macron’s vigor on Wednesday provided evidence that this mission takes priority over his quest to create a comradely relationship with Trump and to prod him toward less-damaging policies. But because Trump is Trump, Macron might get away with playing both roles at once. He has been so successful to this point, as a Trump flatterer, that the president described him as “perfect.”

What? The Guardian’s Jon Henley explains that:

Of all the extraordinary images and effusive displays of manly affection – hugs and kisses, grins and thumbs-ups, back-clapping, hand-clasping, yes, even tree-planting (of an oak, as it happens, from a wood in northern France where more than 1,800 US Marines lost their lives in the first world war) – it was the oddest.

Staring intently at his young guest’s immaculate suit, Donald Trump abruptly stretched out a finger, brushing something invisible off Emmanuel Macron’s collar. “We do have a very special relationship,” he said. “In fact, I’ll get that little piece of dandruff off – we have to make him perfect. He is perfect!”

The French president, understandably taken aback at a gesture breaching all known protocol for state visits, could do little but grin, rather manically. For French newspaper Libération, this was “embarrassing”. For Le Point, albeit tongue-in-cheek, it was “humiliation, a brilliantly executed blow, a stab disguised as an endearment”.

Perhaps so, but Macron had the last laugh. He’s good that this, and Anne Applebaum reviews what others have tried:

Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, sped down to Mar-a-Lago soon after the election, where he gamely played a round of golf. Unfortunately, it didn’t win him any special consideration when Trump announced sweeping aluminum and steel tariffs earlier this year, nor did it prevent the president from embarrassing him with inopportune tweets.

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain also rushed to Washington to play nice and call for a “special relationship” just after the election, but she too has been attacked directly on the president’s Twitter feed; worse, her performance at the White House – including a photograph holding the president’s hand – has been regularly mocked by her own compatriots ever since. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor – too earnest and probably too horrified even to attempt to charm the American president – set out to woo his daughter. She invited Ivanka Trump to appear at a panel discussion alongside herself and several other distinguished female politicians; the result was that the president’s daughter appeared foolish and out of place.

Others have given up being nice. Unable to keep up pretenses, the prime minister of Australia squabbled with Trump, who was having trouble understanding his immigration policy. That phone call ended badly: “I have been making these calls all day,” said the American president, “and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.” The president of Mexico canceled a visit, and now raises his popularity ratings by openly criticizing the American counterpart, as do most other politicians in Mexico.

Only the Frenchman got it right:

This combination – flattery plus direct talk – hasn’t yet been tried on Trump. The friendly gestures will appeal to his narcissism; there is a slim chance – very, very slim – that it might even get him to change his mind about some things. There is a greater risk that the clear opposition, even cloaked in elaborate references to Lincoln and both Roosevelts, might irk him. But the most likely result is that the American president won’t pay attention to what Macron was trying to say – indeed, that he won’t even understand that he has been so openly challenged.

Macron can count on that, and actually may be counting on that:

Macron’s speech will be perfectly understood in France, in Europe, and even in the United States (at least outside the White House). It thus preserves the French president’s dignity in the face of the dandruff incident. It preserves Europe’s aspiration for an alliance with the America described in his speech, the America of Lincoln and both Roosevelts. It keeps the idea of transatlanticism alive. And if the president can’t hear any of that – because Trump’s interest in gestures and power games outweighs his interest in words – then maybe, given the circumstances, that’s okay, too.

The rest of the world is moving on. Macron did his thing. Stand next to the clueless guy. Say he’s wonderful. Pause. Wait a bit. Wait a bit more. Say nothing else. Let the clueless guy smile and preen. Everyone will get the joke, and then everyone will move on. We’ve always had a problem with the French. No one else has now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Subtle Ridicule That Sounds Like Praise

  1. “We’ve always had a problem with the French. No one else has.” Are you forgetting the Hundred Years War? I call that having a problem with the French.

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