An effective leader does not swirl unanchored in the wind of public opinion. A true leader establishes a direction and brings public opinion along. Or pushes forward in spite of public opinion.
The contrast between Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron could not be greater when it comes to how they are handling President Trump.
Britain prides itself about its supposed special relationship with the United States. Theresa May made a hurried appearance in Washington soon after Trump’s election. The only thing anyone remembers about that visit is the caning she received in the media for the now infamous hand-holding episode.
Since then, Trump was offered a full blown state visit only for the idea to be kicked into the long grass as people threatened to protest against the visit. The idea of a Trump visit to the UK has been a litany of prevarication and constantly changing plans.
The Prime Minister doesn’t know whether to stick or twist. Yes, she wants the supposed special relationship to be more than a British fantasy. Yes, she wants to lay the ground for a trade deal with the US. But as for how to handle the tension between a US President unpopular in her home country and the vital importance of maintaining good relationships with the US, she seems clueless (shipping the Foreign Secretary over every so often isn’t going to cut it).
Contrast this with Macron. Trump is highly unpopular in France. An October 2017 poll showed that 70 per cent of French voters viewed Trump unfavourably (up from a February poll).
Even among far right voters, 37 per cent view the US president unfavourably. Yet Macron hosted him, and apparently charmed him, on a state visit during the Bastille Day celebrations. Now he is, in turn, being hosted by Trump on the first state visit by any leader since Trump entered the White House.
If initial reports prove to be correct, it seems that Macron might have managed to shift the US President’s stance both on US troops in Syria and on how to move forward in Iran – and possibly save the Iran nuclear deal.
Macron understands the importance of transatlantic relations. Whether he ‘likes’ Trump or not; whether he can stomach his style; whether he agrees with Trump’s politics or domestic policies – these things are neither here nor there.
We shall probably never know whether Macron feels the same personal chemistry with Trump that Trump claims he has with the French president. It’s all irrelevant. Trump is occupying an office that is vital for French and European interests. As French head of state it is therefore imperative that he establishes good relations, as an equal, with the US president, whoever it is that the American electoral system has installed to that office.
And that he tries as best he can to influence US foreign policy. Macron may have successes. He may face failures. But that’s just part of the job.
Neither is Macron intimidated by poll results into withdrawing from what is a pivotal diplomatic relationship.
Theresa May, on the other hand, is like a deer in the headlights.
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