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Trump and Macron: Two loud presidents, in different ways

Trump and Macron: Two loud presidents, in different ways
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On Tuesday, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump renews attacks against Tester over VA nominee on eve of Montana rally Trump submits 2017 federal income tax returns Corker: Trump administration 'clamped down' on Saudi intel, canceled briefing MORE will host his first state visit. His guest: French president Emmanuel Macron, the young, telegenic leader, popular with public opinion worldwide and unconcerned with the ups and downs of polls at home. 

Being seen with “the cool kid” is a way for Trump — whose approval rating falls below that of all recent U.S. presidents dating back to Harry Truman — to show that he, too, is cool. Nevertheless, Trump and Macron genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company, starting with Trump’s invitation to visit Paris last summer for Bastille Day celebrations and dinner atop the Eiffel tower. Last week, the two presidents, and the United Kingdom, decided to strike the Syrian regime together in response to its use of chemical weapons. 

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Yet, stark differences remain between Macron and Trump on important issues such as climate change, world trade and the Iran nuclear deal. During the French presidential election, Trump praised Macron’s far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, as the strongest candidate because of her anti-immigration program. And Macron’s personal reference is Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCampaign staffers sue Illinois Dem governor candidate over alleged racial discrimination Bipartisanship is a greater danger than political polarization GOP group makes late play in Iowa seat once seen as lost MORE, who endorsed him in 2017.

 

“I have always been very clear and straightforward about our disagreements,” Macron tells Vanity Fair in a profile timed to his visit. Macron and Trump have forged an improbable friendship after a chilly start to their relationship defined by a white-knuckle handshake at the NATO summit in Brussels last May.  

What, then, explains this unlikely closeness between two leaders born 30 years apart and opposed on key policies? For one thing, their communications instincts. 

Without using Trump’s bombastic words, Macron can be blunt — and Trump appreciates this tell-it-like-it-is attitude, reminiscent of his own. Macron, in turn, knows his free and at times defiant tone has earned him Trump’s respect, such as when he promised to “make our planet great again,” mimicking Trump’s signature catchphrase after Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement

Both presidents ran controversial but successful campaigns by putting themselves at the center of media attention, while openly criticizing journalists for biased coverage against the outsiders they claimed to be. Macron and Trump limit their press conferences and interviews to a minimum and prefer direct encounters with the public, arguing they do not need intermediaries to talk to their citizens. 

Given their distrust of the press, Trump and Macron resort to social media, where they are both very active — but they do so in diverging ways. 

Macron tries to educate, rather than to blast, on Facebook and Twitter. His team manages his accounts. Copying Obama’s online strategy, his messages are supported by state-of-the-art pictures, videos and infographics. Macron understands that in the media-saturated world he grew up in, social networks are the best means to control his image and portray himself in the most positive way, especially with his international audience. 

Trump, in contrast, boasts the same style online as in real life. He tweets on his own, erratically, lashing out at foreign leaders, U.S. politicians and news anchors alike. Trump echoes and even stokes his constituents’ fears about globalization and immigration. Having spent most of his life without a computer, let alone a smartphone, he replicates on Twitter the aggressive style that made him famous on TV and arguably got him elected.

Regardless of these differences, the upcoming state visit is a rare opportunity in terms of communications: the two most outspoken leaders of the liberal world can silence undemocratic rivals by speaking in unison on essential areas of international cooperation. On the global fight against terrorism and on the future of Syria, their voices need to be heard urgently. 

Ben Cormier is a French diplomat, formerly the deputy director for communications with the Embassy of France in the United States, and a visiting fellow with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Follow him on Twitter @BnCormier.