Trump's Tepid Congratulations for Emmanuel Macron

Though effusive in praising Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the U.S. president was nonchalant about a French president-elect whose opponent he seemed to favor.

A journalist holds a picture of Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump at a December news conference in Moscow.
A journalist holds a picture of Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump at a December news conference in Moscow. (Pavel Golovkin / AP)

The statement was terse and to the point, issued by the office of the White House press secretary:

We congratulate President-elect Macron and the people of France on their successful presidential election.  We look forward to working with the new President and continuing our close cooperation with the French government.

President Trump issued a comment about Sunday’s runoff election in France via his Twitter feed, too, which was slightly more energetic:

Trump’s statements after the election are notable for a pair of reasons. The first is that he all but endorsed Marine Le Pen, the losing candidate in the race, in the days ahead of the election. The second is that Trump’s public statements about foreign leaders have drawn notice for their breaks with precedent.

Le Pen and Trump have been commonly lumped together as avatars of the nationalist, nativist, isolationist political movement popping up around the globe. Both have also been particularly inflammatory in discussing Islam and dismissive of the EU. But there was more to the comparison than these policy affinities. During the summer of 2016, Le Pen said she would vote for Trump if she were an American voter. Prior to Trump’s inauguration, Le Pen was spotted hanging around Trump Tower, though it was not clear quite why. Russia also worked to encourage the election of both Trump and Le Pen.

Ahead of the April 23 first-round French presidential vote, in which Le Pen placed second, Trump praised her in interviews and social media. After a police officer was killed in an apparent terrorist attack on April 20, Trump tweeted:

Later that day, during an interview with the Associated Press, Trump elaborated: “I think that it’ll probably help her because she is the strongest on borders and she is the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” He insisted he was not endorsing her, and that he was simply acting—as he is often wont to do, blithely ignoring how such statements function when coming from the leader of the free world—as a pundit. “Look, everybody is making predictions who is going to win. I am no different than you,” he said.

For an American president to even flirt with public support for Le Pen, much less to go as far as he did, was a stunning turn. Her National Front grew out of Vichy collaborationists, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis; when her father and predecessor, Jean-Marie Le Pen, surprised the nation by advancing to the presidential runoff in 2002, he was trounced by Jacques Chirac in the head-to-head matchup. Marine Le Pen has sought to remake the party’s image since taking over, and even suspended her father from his own party for downplaying the Holocaust.

As the results of Sunday’s election, in which Macron, who was himself endorsed by former U.S. President Obama, beat Le Pen by a two-to-one margin, demonstrate, Le Pen has not successfully changed the image of the party among French voters—and one reason was a succession of incidents during the election that suggested she had not changed its substance, either. Yet the FN’s fascist-friendly past did not give Trump pause before delivering his almost-endorsement.

Trump’s friendly relationship with Le Pen might help to explain his somewhat chilly reaction to Macron’s victory. But a comparison with how the president handled a recent referendum in Turkey helps reveal the ways in which Trump is remaking American policy and precedent.

In April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan oversaw a referendum that would grant him sweeping new powers, and effectively ratify a purge and power grab he has conducted over a series of years. Many pro-democracy observers viewed the referendum itself as unsavory, and beyond that, election observers have questioned the integrity of the result, which was a tighter win for Erdogan than expected.

Nonetheless, Trump quickly called Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory. As I wrote at the time, that phone call divided American foreign-policy observers. Some saw it as a horrifying gesture of U.S. support for a power grab. Others viewed it as only a slight (if unwise) deviation from norms, but in line with the U.S. habit of congratulating allies, and even pseudo-allies, on peaceful (if flawed) elections.

The White House and president did issue speedy statements after Macron’s victory was clear. But if Trump placed a phone call to the president-elect, the White House has not made it public. (An inquiry to the White House about whether Trump has called, or plans to call, Macron was not immediately answered.)

The contrast between the warmth for an increasingly authoritarian Turkish president and coolness toward the centrist leader of a key American ally is stark. At the time of his call to Erdogan, one theory for Trump’s move was that he is eager to court Erdogan as an ally in the American fight against ISIS, as well as potentially against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Despite missile strikes in April, Trump’s policy toward Assad remains a muddle.)

Yet France is not only one of America’s closest allies, and a friend of longstanding, it is also a central part of the alliance conducting strikes against ISIS—and furthermore, Macron was supportive of striking Assad after an April chemical-weapons attack, as Trump did, while Le Pen criticized Trump’s decision to fire missiles.

It’s difficult to know what Trump’s calculus is, but one potential reason for his friendlier view toward Erdogan—and toward Le Pen—is not direct policy similarities, but attitudinal similarities. Trump respects and reveres strength. Erdogan has positioned himself as a neo-Ottoman strongman; it was Le Pen’s strength that Trump praised in his AP interview. Macron, meanwhile, is a bland, centrist technocrat, hardly a paragon of steeliness.

Trump has already demonstrated that a relationship that begins cool can warm up. After getting into a bizarre and unexpected tiff with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in February, Trump hosted Turnbull for a cordial visit over the weekend. Maybe Macron and Trump will similarly hit it off in the future. For the time being, however, the president has signaled that strength is more important to him than traditional ties—whether that’s France’s close relationship with America, or the fascist sympathies of Marine Le Pen’s National Front.