Written by Adam Nossiter
President Emmanuel Macron of France seemed to be everywhere at once during the Group of 7 summit. For the space of a weekend, at least, the West appeared to have one person running the show, and it was not the U.S. president.
One day, Macron was wooing President Donald Trump over a long, private lunch. The next he was flying in the Iranian foreign minister for unannounced talks. He seized the role as chief defender of the global climate, telling Brazilians to get themselves a new president. He even prompted a surprise diplomatic opening on Iran from Trump, even if both initiatives hit early headwinds Tuesday.
Macron missed no opportunity to wring every advantage from his role as host of the summit in the southern resort city of Biarritz. It gave him the perfect stage to pursue his ambition, both grandiose and self-serving, to position France, and himself, as candidates to fill the vacancy left by Trump’s retreat from traditional Western values.
With Trump deepening U.S. isolation on major global issues, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on a glide path out of power, Macron has become the leading champion of European unity and multilateralism. Macron clearly wanted to use the G-7 forum to show the world that neither are dead letters. He also wanted to show off himself.
The Élysée Palace offered several news outlets behind-the-scenes access to the French president during the summit. Macron organized the events to avoid the missteps that have produced undiplomatic outbursts from Trump in the past. His lunch with Trump on Day 1 established that this forum was for two leaders as much as it was for seven, as did the leaders’ joint news conference at the summit’s end. Those touches went far in sating the U.S. president’s ego, even as they effectively elevated the two men to the status of first among equals. But Macron’s objective appeared to be not so much showing up his American counterpart as reasserting the efficacy of the European approach to global problems.
He said as much last week, telling journalists that the summit was a way to demonstrate that the “European civilization project” was an “answer” in a world searching for “global stability.”
“If we can’t redefine the terms of our sovereignty, we can’t defend our project,” Macron said to reporters before leaving for Biarritz. “Man is at the heart of the project,” he said, adding that the “relationship to the dignity of man, to humanism” was “the foundation of European civilization.”
In the context of global diplomacy, that means eschewing the threats, bullying and humiliation favored by Trump and what Macron called the “nationalist-sovereignists” in favor of multilateral diplomacy and a refusal to demonize adversaries.
Macron’s domestic stock, only lately creeping up after being battered by months of Yellow Vest protests, has improved further after what the French media characterized as a successful summit. He “managed to be at the forefront and sometimes at the center of some of the hottest diplomatic issues of the day,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
Macron came out of the G-7 meeting “as well as any head of state can,” Tertrais said, adding that he had “appeared as someone who can achieve results on the key multilateral issues.” “It does establish its credentials as a global leader for multilateralism and liberal values,” Tertrais said of the summit. “I’m actually quite favorably impressed.”
Not everyone was as enamored of the presumptive French role, however. Early in the weekend Trump’s aides complained that the agenda that Macron set focused more on what they called “niche issues” like climate change than on global economic challenges.
In a dispute that has grown personal, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil demanded an apology from Macron on Tuesday before he said Brazil could consider an aid package of more than $22 million to fight fires in the Amazon offered by leaders at the summit.
Last week, Bolsonaro mocked Macron’s wife and said the French president was treating Brazil “as if we were a colony.” Macron had responded by saying that he hoped Brazilians would soon get a “president who behaves properly.”
On the Iranian question in particular, Macron appeared to be nudging Trump in a new direction.
He got Trump to swallow the surprise visit of an Iranian official, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in the midst of a conflict that has escalated in recent months with a string of episodes involving oil tankers and drones near Iran.
He even got Trump to agree, in principle, to a possible meeting with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran. Such a meeting would be the first between American and Iranian leaders since the Tehran hostage crisis of 1979-81, though Rouhani said that he would not sit down with Trump until Washington ended its economic sanctions.
“It’s the beginning of something,” Macron said.
Macron was careful to offer guarded praise for the U.S. position, which he said “creates pressure, and conditions for a better agreement.” And he got Trump to say he was against “regime change” in Iran, reassuring European officials who have been worried about the worst for months.
On the economic front, Macron said a major issue for him was “Can we pacify international commerce?”
It was “an error in reasoning” to engage in “commercial war and isolationism,” Macron said. And again, he got Trump to sound notes on the trade war that were far more conciliatory toward China than over preceding days.
It was in his handling of Trump, the declared enemy of multilateralism and unabashed wrecker of summits, that Macron showed his greatest agility.
That one-on-one lunch he organized for Trump — aides only joined at the end — evidently went far to mollify the U.S. president. Trump spoke effusively about the meeting afterward.
“We had a lunch that lasted for quite a while, just the two of us,” Trump said. “It was the best period of time we’ve ever had. We weren’t trying to impress anybody, just each other.”