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COMMENTARY

Trump-Macron meeting has global ramifications

EMMANUEL Macron is in Washington DC from Monday to Wednesday for the first official state visit of Donald Trump's presidency.

Despite the strong friendship forged between the pair, vexed issues could yet spoil the positive mood music, especially with upcoming deadlines in May to "fix" the Iran nuclear deal, and for the EU to negotiate permanent exemptions from US tariffs.

The summit between two leaders, vastly different in age and political philosophies, will be intriguing for the apparent political bonds they have forged. Part of this appears to be based around Mr Macron's careful outreach to Mr Trump, sensing an opportunity to sway US thinking and elevate France in global affairs, and prevent the US president from feeling isolated or backed into a corner on key issues from global warming to international trade.

Mr Trump has referred to his relationship with Mr Macron as "great", and it is true that they share political positioning as perceived insurgent outsiders with a business background. Moreover, the two have a number of shared international objectives, including in countering international terrorism with France, for instance, the second-largest contributor to the US-led coalition in Syria.

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Yet, while both leaders have clear reasons to court each other, the diplomatic mood music in Washington in coming days might be tense at times. mr Trump has given the EU until May 1 to negotiate permanent exemptions from US steel and aluminium tariffs, and France (alongside the UK, Germany, China and Russia) until May 12 to persuade the White House on why the 2015 Iran nuclear deal should be kept in place, with Mr Macron wanting to retain the agreement but be tough on Tehran's ballistic missile programme, and wider regional activities.

These issues aside, the overall context for the summit is broader, stark policy divergences. Already the two presidents have clashed over a wide range of issues, not least the Paris climate change treaty, which yet again highlights the global ramifications of their discussions in as much as they embody more than any other democratic leaders the current "battle" in international relations between an apparently rising conservative, populist tide, and the liberal centre ground, which will continue to play out.

Mr Macron's victory last year against Mr Trump's preferred far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, defied the march of right wing populism in numerous countries that have seen parties of the left and centre ground sometimes taking a political battering. And, conversely, Mr Trump's surprise victory in November 2016 epitomised this conservative tide.

Beyond classical political notions of left and right, however, a key dividing line that has become more salient in international politics is between a liberal cosmopolitan pole and a populist (or even xenophobic authoritarian) one. This liberal cosmopolitan versus populist battle played out not just in Mr Trump's victory against Hillary Clinton, but also other ballots, including the Brexit referendum.

TURNAROUND

Yet, defying many expectations last year, there was a partial turnaround in fortunes - in Europe at least - with the victory of not just Mr Macron. But also the Dutch Liberals over the far-right, populist Freedom Party, and also the Austrian presidential election which saw the convincing defeat of the Freedom Party leader, Norbert Hofer, who would have become Europe's first far-right head of state since 1945.

Time will tell how significant this turnaround in fortunes proves to be for those forces championing the political centre ground. Warning signs have already been shot by subsequent elections in Italy - where the populist Five Star and far-right The League could yet govern the country in a coalition - and in Germany where the far right won legislative seats for some six decades.

For now, at least, it is Mr Macron's victory - especially remarkable given his meteoric rise in early 2017 - which is being looked to by many for potential lessons to other left and centrist politicians in coming years. This is because Mr Macron's victory came by him proving a foil to Ms Le Pen and fellow conservative and other populists by positioning himself against what he calls the old left and right.

His candidacy was driven, in part, by his pioneering of a new political movement, En Marche! (Forward!), which has at least temporarily filled a significant vacuum of power created by the disenchantment with traditional party system. Another factor driving Mr Macron's success is the fact that he had never held office before: He has the appearance of change to many voters, and was elected as the youngest French president in the Fifth Republic.

What his success also appears to underline is that politicians of the liberal, centre ground benefit from having an optimistic, forward-looking vision for tackling complex, long-term policy challenges like tackling stagnant living standards and re-engaging people with the political process to help build public confidence around solutions to them. France has been suffering from economic pain since at least the 2008/09 international financial crisis, and suffered years of double-digit unemployment and low growth driving discontent.

Tackling such tough-to-solve, first-order challenges in this context is a significant hurdle that centrist politicians across much of the world are widely perceived to have failed on, helping give rise to perceptions of a broken political process. This is a factor Mr Macron has skilfully navigated - at least to date - in a bid to demonstrate more effectively how a fair, tolerant, inclusive democratic politics can help overcome or ameliorate the challenges that many people are experiencing in a world changing fast in the face of globalisation.

Yet, Mr Macron's ultimate success in coming years is by no means guaranteed given France's volatile political mood. And if his agenda is perceived to fail, the primary beneficiary may well be Mr Trump's political soulmate, Mr Le Pen. Despite her loss last year, she secured more than 40 per cent of the vote, and is young enough to carry the populist, conservative flag in French presidential elections well into the 2020s.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at London School of Economics