Was that a touch of gloating I detected last night as I watched the news on French television? The lead item was Donald Trump’s acceptance of President Macron’s invitation to attend the Bastille Day commemoration in Paris next month. It’s always a prestigious occasion and this year marks the centenary of America’s entry into WW1. Hence the invitation to the American president which came in a telephone conversation where the pair also agreed on a joint military response against the Syrian regime should Bashar al-Assad launch another chemical attack. That Trump has accepted at relatively short notice – Macron only issued the invite on Tuesday – suggests that The Donald is delighted to be asked, as is his wife Melania, who lived in Paris as a young model and retains an affection for France.
More than anything, however, Trump showing up in Paris will be a slap in the face to the inhospitable Brits. As the French news anchor told us on Wednesday evening, as we watched footage of February’s infantile anti-Trump protests in London, normally a new American president visits Britain before France. But this one has understood he’s not welcome in the Old Country, so instead he’ll enjoy the pomp and ceremony that France has to offer; and as the White House press statement explained, the ‘two leaders will further build on the strong counter-terrorism cooperation and economic partnership between the two countries, and they will discuss many other issues of mutual concern’.
France on the whole is in favour of Trump’s visit. There’s the odd dissenting voice, like the far-left demagogue Jean-Luc Melenchon who said the American president ‘is not welcome’, because July 14th is all about ‘the freedom of the French’. But in general the French are pleased that Trump is coming. A ‘diplomatic coup’ was how one newspaper described the news, while 61 per cent of respondents on an online poll in Le Figaro approved.
Welcoming the president of the most powerful country in the world is a shot in the arm for French morale, still fragile after the five disastrous years of François Hollande’s presidency, but there’s another reason for the Gallic glee. During the five years of hell under Hollande, France was mercilessly ridiculed by its neighbour. Britain delighted in what came to be known as ‘French-bashing’, to such as extent that in October 2014 the then-Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, pleaded with the British to ease up on the insults.
That plea was directed at people like Andy Street, formerly managing director of John Lewis, who described France as ‘sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat’, sentiments echoed in a scathing editorial in City AM, in which then-editor Allister Heath wrote that France’s economic sickness was down to its ‘absurd levels of inefficient public spending and generalised hatred of commerce, capitalism, success and hard work’.
It wasn’t much use Valls complaining to David Cameron about the sniping; not when the PM was also at it, cheerfully declaring that his government would ‘roll out the red carpet’ for French firms looking to escape the high tax of Hollande’s Socialist government. Boris Johnson also applied a hefty boot to the French derrière, crowing:
‘The sans-culottes appear to have captured the government in Paris. ‘Venez à Londres, mes amis!’ (Come to London, my friends!)’.
France’s economy is still far from healthy but there’s a sense in the country that a corner’s been turned. They have a bold new president with bold new ideas and the nation’s self-belief is beginning to return. Meanwhile the confidence continues to drain from their neighbour. The French have yet to embark on full-scale ‘Brit-bashing’, but there was a frisson in one newspaper this month as they reported that Britain was bottom of the G7 growth league
When Cameron made his snide quip about welcoming French firms to London in 2012, Laurent Fabius, then France’s foreign minister, retorted that they would roll out the red carpet to British business should the UK decide to quit the EU. How Britain’s political and business leaders laughed at the very idea. They’re not laughing now. But the French are, noting that at the same time they host the president of the most powerful country on the planet, the British will be welcoming the king and queen of Spain.