Emmanuel Macron’s hosting of sixty world leaders in Paris last weekend to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice has turned into a public relations disaster.
The president of the Republic not only infuriated Donald Trump, but he also put the Serbian president’s nose out of joint. According to reports, Aleksandar Vucic was not amused with the seating arrangements at Sunday’s service of remembrance. While Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaçi was behind the leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and the United States, Vucic was shunted off to the side. “You can imagine how I felt,” Thaci is quoted as telling the Serbian media. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing before me, knowing the sacrifice that the Serbian people made in World War One.”
Marine Le Pen seized on those comments in an interview yesterday, saying that she was shocked at the treatment of president Vucic, whose country suffered disproportionately high losses in the first world war.
But perhaps the image that will come back to haunt Macron is the video clip of a little old lady mistaking Angela Merkel for his wife during a walkabout. It was an innocent faux pas from the 100-year-old and Macron and Merkel entered into the spirit of the occasion. But beneath the public smile was Macron grimacing? He won’t have heard the last of ‘Emmanuel and Angela Macron’ from his political opponents and the television satirists.
The German chancellor is not a popular figure in France and the sight of her and Macron snuggling up to each other in Compiègne on Saturday in a ceremony to mark the moment when the Armistice was signed in a railway carriage wasn’t well received in many quarters. When Macron trounced Le Pen in their televised debate on the eve of the second round of last year’s presidential election, the only blow the leader of the National Rally landed was a quip during an testy exchange about the E.U. “France will be led by a woman,” she sneered at her rival. “Either me or Madame Merkel.”
It’s not hard to see how she will get mileage out of Merkel being mistaken for Madame Macron, particularly in light of the German Chancellor’s comments on Tuesday in which she echoed his call for a European army. “What is really important, if we look at the developments of the past year, is that we have to work on a vision of one day creating a real, true European army,” Merkel told the European Parliament to rapturous applause.
In 1992, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl conceived the Eurocorps with a Franco-German Brigade at it heart; but in 1998, this initial attempt at closer military cooperation was described as “moribund”. Mitterrand, who died in 1996, had been the driving force behind the brigade, an attempt to allay his anxiety at the reunification of Germany. On that subject he shared Margaret Thatcher’s view, expressed in 1990, that reunification risked “an economically and demographically powerful German bloc in the centre of Europe and that must be avoided”.
In an interview this morning, the idea of a European army was put to Pierre de Villiers, the head of France’s armed forces until he resigned 18 months ago following a clash with Macron. He described the idea as “unfeasible”, adding: “It’s not possible to merge soldiers from different countries to go into combat. One dies for one’s commander, one dies for one’s values, one dies for one’s country. One doesn’t die for a European Economic Community.”
Le Pen has never made any secret of her admiration for Trump and while the majority of her compatriots don’t share her devotion, nor do they detest the American president with the same childish hysteria as many in Britain. On Sunday, an Anti-Trump demonstration in Paris flopped, with only 1,500 turning up instead of the many thousands that the organisers had hoped.
Macron is expected to respond to Trump’s Twitter tirade during a live television interview this evening but a man mindful of his country’s history will be aware that this Atlantic enmity is nothing new. Franklin D. Roosevelt loathed Charles de Gaulle, describing him during the second world war as “an apprentice dictator” and his country as a “little child unable to look out and fend for itself”.
What Trump said on Tuesday wasn’t so different. He tweeted that Macron “suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia. But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two – How did that work out for France?”.
Trump, for all his insults and his inanity, has a way of hitting the nail on the head, and that reference to Germany will have made many in France uncomfortable.
Can Germany ever truly be trusted? Marine Le Pen believes not and Macron’s alignment with Angela Merkel will be the main thrust of her campaigning ahead of next year’s European elections. Like Trump, she was also busy on Twitter yesterday, declaring to her two million followers that on the third anniversary of the Bataclan attacks the biggest danger France faces “is not Russia but Islamic fundamentalism”. She also said the European elections are a “fight for independence for the European nations”, against the likes of Macron, who “symbolises the choice of a federal Europe, which constitutes an Empire, against the people”.
Le Pen adorns the front page of today’s Le Parisien, the capital’s tabloid, and the paper says that six months before the European elections “her populist discourse – anti-immigration, anti-E.U, anti-system – promises to put the wind in her sails”.
If Merkel has replaced Trump as Macron’s new best friend then Le Pen would like nothing better than to be the bosom buddy of the American president. When she visited New York at the start of last year during her presidential campaign she failed to secure a meeting with him, despite turning up at Trump Tower. Were she to visit the States in the run up to the European Elections what’s the betting Trump would make time to see her, and then tweet all about it?