Ever since Donald Trump became president, European leaders have sought to read his mind on what he thinks about the old continent. While thousands of policy papers have been produced in the process, two handshakes may be more telling.
The first one never happened. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the Oval Office in March 2017, a visibly unenthusiastic Trump — deliberately or accidentally — ignored calls to shake her hand. Merkel sat through it, as she often does.
Alert to the awkwardness of the scenes that unfolded in the Oval Office that afternoon, and during Trump's subsequent meetings with other world leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron didn't take any chances when it was his turn in May. Macron opted for an unusually prolonged, quite possibly painful, white-knuckle handshake that was supposed to convey a clear message: Don’t underestimate the French president, Mr. Trump.
“My handshake with him — it wasn’t innocent,” Macron acknowledged in a subsequent interview. “That’s how you ensure you are respected. You have to show you won’t make small concessions — not even symbolic ones.”
Neither Macron nor Merkel share many similarities with Trump. Macron won the French presidency by running on a centrist, globalist premise, even though his critics have recently complained that his governing style is somewhat similar to Trump’s. Merkel may be the leader of Germany’s conservative party, but she is also more likely to enter the history books as a (sometimes accidental) champion of liberal values.
But only one of the two major European leaders appears to have earned Trump’s respect — and it isn’t Merkel.
“Macron has been very clever and successful in portraying his differences with Trump as issue by issue, whereas in reality, there are major philosophical differences about the world order and Trump’s role in dismantling it,” said Nicholas Dungan, a France-based senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. “Macron has decided to handle Trump on Trump’s terms.”
When Trump visited Macron in Paris in July to attend a military parade, their then-cordial handshake lasted a full 29 seconds. “All the French pomp and circumstance comes close to [Trump's] ideas what a real presidency should look like. Merkel stands for many things Trump loathes: current account surpluses, a progressive immigration policy, modesty,” Stephan Bierling, an international politics professor at the University of Regensburg, said in an email.
Somewhat surprisingly, the German chancellor, who is known for her obsession with details and pragmatism, has made her dealings with Trump a matter of principles.
As much as Trump may favor his new French companion, though, there won’t be any escape from Merkel this week. With both European leaders visiting the White House, their vastly different approaches to the U.S. president will be on public display again — especially given that Macron is being honored with a three-day state visit while Merkel is set to arrive for a far less glamorous working visit.
Their vastly different relationships with Trump may come down to a number of factors:
Macron appears to believe that isolating Trump or treating him as an outcast in international politics would be counterproductive, even if the two may not agree most of the time. That stands in strong contrast to Merkel, who offered to work with Trump only after listing her conditions hours after his November 2016 election victory: respect for “democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.” Lecturing the man holding the most powerful office on Earth may not have been her most pragmatic decision.
Macron, now sometimes called the “Trump whisperer,” fears that such a preachy approach may only add to Trump's perception of being the head of a country unfairly burdened with defending the liberal world order he wants to dismantle. “Macron has a strong sense of reality and his sense of reality tells him that he will have vastly more margin to maneuver globally if Trump stays out of his way,” Dungan said.
The French president is also better equipped to calm Trump’s anger about Europe’s reluctance to deploy military force. While Merkel is the head of a country where pacifism is deeply ingrained in the contemporary political DNA and where the military usually makes headlines only over its lack of equipment, Macron was able and willing to team up with the United States and Britain for strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in response to a recent suspected chemical weapons attack.
In international relations, bonding experiences can make a big difference. As a male president, Macron appears to have had the upper hand over his female counterparts. Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Britain’s Theresa May have spoken up when they deemed Trump’s behavior unacceptable, and none of these female leaders have tried to bond with him the way many of their male counterparts have. (Allegations of lewd sexual behavior against Trump probably haven’t helped.) Merkel and May also don’t play golf or find military parades particularly intriguing — two other possible ways of pleasing the U.S. president.
In contrast to Macron's strong mandate, which his critics say he has used to essentially turn France into a one-party state, Merkel rules in a coalition government with the Social Democrats, who have been extraordinarily outspoken against Trump. Leading Social Democrats have called Trump a “threat” and the “front-runner of a new authoritarian and chauvinist movement.” A Merkel-Trump friendship wouldn’t go down well with the left-leaning party that is keeping her in government.
Yet, not everyone is convinced that Macron’s Trump strategy can yield tangible results. “The danger is that Macron advertises the idea that somehow he has Trump under control. Nobody has Trump under control,” Dungan said.
After Macron said last week that he had persuaded Trump to keep U.S. forces in Syria “long term,” the French leader had to back off his comments after a sharp rejection of the claim from the White House. “Everyone who tries to control Trump gets rejected by him, so taking credit for being in charge of Trump could cost Macron the influence he has acquired,” Dungan said.
Teaming up with a U.S. president who is deeply unpopular in Europe may also be a risk for Macron domestically.
“In the end, all this may not mean much. So far, Trump has treated his friends worse than his enemies,” said Bierling, referring to the recent U.S. refusal to grant ally Japan waivers from the new tariffs on steel and aluminum. “Macron may have the same experience.”
“Trump seems to appreciate deals with Kim Jong Un more than deals with the Europeans,” Bierling added.
But, for now, Trump appears to appreciate his interactions with Macron at least as much, judging from their playful handshake during their appearance at the White House on Tuesday and their subsequent exit.