Trump hosts Macron for talks on future of Iran nuclear deal

In Washington for three-day state visit, French president promises to ‘work together’ with US counterpart, but key differences hide behind diplomatic smiles

US President Donald Trump with first lady Melania Trump greet visiting French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron upon arrival at the White House in Washington, April 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US President Donald Trump with first lady Melania Trump greet visiting French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron upon arrival at the White House in Washington, April 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday kicked off a pomp-filled three-day state visit to the US at the White House — a test of whether his studied bonhomie with US President Donald Trump can save the Iran nuclear deal and avoid a trans-Atlantic trade war.

Before getting the full red carpet treatment at the White House — payback for wooing Trump with military parades and a dazzling Eiffel Tower dinner in Paris last July — Macron took an impromptu stroll to the Lincoln Memorial with his wife Brigitte.

Hailing the “very important” visit, Macron then rolled into the West Wing from Lafayette Square — named after the storied French general who fought in America’s war for independence — beneath dozens of fluttering tricolor French flags and before a full US military color guard.

Waiting at the door, the US president smiled and held out his hand for Macron to shake, and the French leader kissed him on both cheeks.

US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk on the South Lawn with French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron at the White House, April 23, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The pageantry — designed to underscore Trump and Macron’s “friendship” — comes in stark contrast to the bare-bones one-day working visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel later in the week.

But beyond the 21-gun salutes and dinners of lamb and “Burnt Cipollini Soubise” lurks high political danger for the 40-year-old French leader.

Trump is deeply unpopular in France and Macron, like other world leaders — from Japan’s Shinzo Abe to Britain’s Theresa May — is under growing pressure to show voters the benefits of his courtship with the 71-year-old Republican.

Looming over a joint outing to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate on Monday evening, and working meetings and a state dinner on Tuesday, are two May deadlines that have the potential to wreck already fragile trans-Atlantic relations.

War ‘against everybody… doesn’t work’

Biting trade sanctions on European steel and aluminum will enter into force on May 1 unless Trump agrees to sign a waiver. If he refuses, there are fears of a full-fledged trade war.

Meanwhile, France and other European nations are battling to save a complex nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump will scuttle if he refuses to waive sanctions against Tehran by a May 12 deadline.

Iran says it is ready to relaunch its nuclear program — which the West suspects is designed to produce a bomb — if Trump kills the deal.

European officials say Trump’s demand to reopen the deal are impossible, and are scrambling to address his concerns on Tehran’s missile testing, inspections and the regime’s behavior in the region.

There is growing frustration in European capitals that Trump’s stubbornness over the Obama-era agreement is diverting attention away from other pressing issues.

In an interview broadcast on the eve of his arrival, Macron went on Trump’s favorite television channel, Fox News, to make his pitch.

“If you make war against everybody,” Macron said, “trade war against Europe, war in Syria, war against Iran – come on — it doesn’t work. You need allies. We are the allies.”

Macron will also be keen to temper Trump’s instinct to precipitously pull the US military out of Syria, amid cooperation in fighting the Islamic State group and coordinated strikes on chemical weapons installations operated by Damascus.

“I think the US role is very important to play,” he said. “Why? I will be very blunt. The day we will have finished this war against ISIS, if we leave, definitely and totally, even from a political point of view, we will leave the floor to the Iranian regime, Bashar al-Assad and these guys.”

‘Now – we will work together’

In public, both countries are keen to emphasize their historic relationship — recalling that France was the first ally of American revolutionaries fighting for independence.

Macron brought with him an oak sapling that he and Trump planted at the White House on Monday as a symbol of friendship.

It comes from near the site of the Battle of Belleau Woods in northern France, where 2,000 US Marines perished at the end of World War I.

The pair, clearly relaxed, also briefly visited the Oval Office before heading to Mount Vernon.

US First lady Melania Trump watches as President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron participate in a tree planting ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

On a personal level, despite sharp differences in political background, age and lifestyle, the presidents seem to have struck up a bond as fellow outsiders who outwitted the establishment to gain power.

“We have a very special relationship because both of us are probably the maverick of the systems on both sides,” Macron told Fox News.

Trump himself told Macron their “friendship” was “unbreakable” during his trip to Paris last year.

When asked about their first encounter — a much-scrutinized six-second handshake during a NATO summit in May — Macron acknowledged it had was a “very direct, lucid moment” that had set the tone between them.

“And a very friendly moment,” he added. “It was to say now, we will work together.”

On Wednesday, the centrist leader will demonstrate his English-language skills — a rarity for a French president — in an address to a joint session of Congress.

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