David A. Andelman: Trump's visit to France on Bastille Day is taking on dual significance
While it will celebrate historically strong relationship between the nations, it also will draw attention to current tensions
Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” He formerly served as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
If there is one sacred holiday in France, it is what Americans call “Bastille Day,” and the French simply call “the Fourteenth of July.” It is the Fourth of July, Veteran’s Day and Presidents Day all rolled into one. Now, on the invitation of France’s new President Emmanuel Macron, Donald Trump is coming to celebrate it with the French people.
This year it has a double significance – a celebration by the French of all America has done through the years to preserve French democracy and the cloud of some profound issues that have threatened to undermine the brief relationship of Trump and Macron. From climate change to Qatar, Damascus to Moscow, there will be no shortage of wounds to bind or fester.
It was 100 years ago this month that the first 14,000 “Doughboys” landed on the south coast of Brittany – the vanguard of what would be 1 million American men and women, the largest military deployment America had ever seen abroad until that point. Under the leadership of the redoubtable Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing, they would turn the tide against the Germans and win World War I for the side of democracy. The French have never forgotten this demonstration of loyalty.
Not only symbols and atmospherics, but politics and diplomacy as well – indeed, the entire future of American-European relations – will be at play as Trump and his 39-year-old host mount the viewing stand at the Place de la Concorde.
The subtext, however, may be lost on Trump. In reality, this visit is yet another brick placed quite craftily in the edifice of French leadership of Europe, even the world, that Macron has been quietly, skilfully building. Here’s the French President sitting proudly in the central position of power, the military forces he commands pirouetting deftly before him and screaming overhead in the skies. And then there’s the apparent acolyte, Trump, at his feet (or elbow depending on where the Elysees protocol folks put him on the dais).
But beyond the atmospherics, there are some real issues that deeply divide these two would-be allies. There is the COP21 global climate agreement, negotiated and signed at Le Bourget field just outside Paris and that Trump swept away with a casual gesture in the Rose Garden and a remark many French took to heart: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh not Paris.”
That all cuts close to the bone here as Macron served as a minister in the Socialist government of his predecessor Francois Hollande, who spearheaded the entire climate treaty effort. Indeed, Macron has already in a single breath denounced and mocked Trump’s stand on climate control, borrowing a campaign Trumpism to proclaim that it was essential to find a way to “Make our planet great again.”
But there are several even more immediate and contentious issues revolving around centerpieces of the Trump agenda.
Syria is on both nations’ radar. Here, Trump has a unique opportunity to right a wrong, erasing a bitter legacy of President Barack Obama when he left Hollande out to dry behind a red line the Americans had drawn. After Obama pledged swift and sure justice in the form of military retaliation if Syria used chemical weapons against their people, Hollande, at some political cost, had assured Obama he was solidly behind him. But Obama failed to pull the trigger, stepping back from the brink, forcing the French into an unwelcome position of climbing down as well. Trump is in a position to assure Macron this will not happen again.
In many ways, Qatar is a more difficult issue. Macron was appalled by the action of Gulf states ganging up on their tiny neighbor. He quickly stepped in as mediator, weighing in by phone with Qatari ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Saudi King Salman and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and “invited all parties to pursue dialogue.” The contrast with Trump’s sudden and unwavering declaration could not have been more striking, as the American President promptly leapt to the defense of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been urging the kind of measured mediation Macron has supported, should be especially pleased to have another voice of reason whispering in Trump’s ear, countering that of Jared Kushner and his new Sunni Arab friends – Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates’ powerful young ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba.
And then there’s Russia. One of Macron’s first guests after his inauguration was President Vladimir Putin, who’d made no secret during the French presidential campaign of his preference for Macron’s principal foe, right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen. The French and Russian leaders held a “frank exchange,” Macron making his views clear on Russian intervention in Syria and Ukraine and his support for sanctions against the Kremlin’s actions. And he minced no words about Russian intervention in the recently concluded campaign. Compare and contrast with Donald Trump’s America.
Finally, if Trump thinks a quick trip to review some French troops and a lavish dinner the evening before will be a distraction from his troubles with opponents – foreign and domestic – he should be reading the French press more carefully. Within moments after the visit was announced in Washington and Paris, one of Macron’s primary opponents, Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the left-wing party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), observed that “Mr. Trump is not at all welcome at our celebration of the 14th of July. This holiday celebrates French freedom. Mr. Trump is a violent person and should have nothing to do with that.”
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Still, Trump will be able to get a sense of the grandeur that is France today, with a vast array of troops from the farthest corners of the French empire. Hopefully he will begin to appreciate what a staunch and loyal ally the United States has here – one among many in Europe and beyond.
Above all, he will hear the stirring French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” quite a lot, and should pay special attention to the words, which include among many others (in English translation so they might sink in):
Tremble, tyrants and traitors
The shame of all good men….
Against you we are all soldiers.