President Trump meets French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris this week to commemorate the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I. The election of Macron, a 39-year-old business-savvy reformer, who swept away incumbent parties with a movement created barely a year ago, has triggered a wave of optimism in France and Europe that he can reinvigorate the French economy and the EU. At a time when, as Trump stated in Poland, the West doubts itself, this newfound vitality is a welcome development for the United States.
American policymakers, however, should be concerned with recent foreign policy statements by Macron, a former investment banker and economics minister with limited international experience. Trump should use his visit, in part, to try and persuade Macron to maintain France’s tough lines on Syria and Iran.
Under Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande, France became America’s staunchest European ally in the war on terror and the toughest Western voice on Iran. No European leader was tougher on Iran than Sarkozy, who even lobbied the U.S. Congress unilaterally in 2011, in the face of Obama administration opposition, to promote tighter sanctions on Tehran.
Hollande, while feckless domestically, maintained a tough policy toward Iran, undergirded by determined senior civil servants who opposed many of the concessions President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry ultimately made to Iran in the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Hollande also demonstrated strong will internationally. He had French fighter jets lined up to attack Syria after Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 — only to be humiliated by Obama’s refusal to enforce his own red line. Hollande sent thousands of troops to Mali in 2013 to fight Islamic terrorists as Obama dawdled and then reluctantly offered logistical support.
The horrific terror attacks in France in 2016-17 led Hollande’s then-prime minister, Manuel Valls, to declare that France was fighting a “war with terrorism, jihadism and radical Islam,” while Obama demurred.
Macron did make Mali his first international stop as president, breaking a tradition of first visiting Berlin, but has signaled a possible rupture with this tough French approach. He criticized a “neoconservative” shift under the last two presidents, giving credence to the idea that he would revert to a Jacques Chirac-style diplomacy of posturing and complacency towards strongmen.
In a recent media interview, Macron asserted that “Assad’s removal is no longer a priority” in resolving the Syria crisis. “My line is clear: one, a total fight against terrorist groups. They are our enemies … We need the cooperation of everyone to eradicate them, particularly Russia. Two: stability in Syria, because I don’t want a failed state.” A “political and diplomatic strategy is needed,” he added, not a military one.
Accepting that Assad can stay marked new ground: albeit arguably realistic, it was a unilateral concession. But Macron’s stated desire to avoid a failed state in Syria, which has been in flames since 2011 with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced, is chimeric at best.
What is more concerning is Macron’s apparent distinction between Assad and terrorist groups. Assad’s despotism triggered the civil war and is being propped up by Iran, a leading sponsor of terror, and its proxy, the Lebanese Shia terrorist group Hezbollah. Moreover, Macron’s comments evince no consideration — indeed any mention — of the threat of Iran further dominating Syria, threatening Israel and Jordan, and ensuring a land bridge for weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Nor does Macron appear to fully appreciate the JCPOA’s dangers. The Hollande government, despite significant misgivings, including regarding the non-prohibition of ballistic missiles, accepted the nuclear deal and thereafter pursued more trade with Iran.
Macron, with no Iran experience, seeks to intensify economic ties. Notably, on July 3, French oil giant Total and China’s CNPC signed a $2 billion deal to develop Iran’s South Pars gas field, one of the largest investment projects in Iran since the JCPOA. French officials suggest Macron will likely oppose any new sanctions on Iran, even on ballistic missiles, absent a strong provocation from Tehran, in variance to Trump’s tougher line.
Trump could point out to Macron that, as his predecessors understood, aspirations for a secure and rejuvenated France and EU partly hinge on a more moderate and stable Middle East, and a reduction in, if not defeat, of Islamic terror. This includes containing and shrinking the expansion, influence and military strength of the radical Shia regime in Tehran.
There has been great international concern over Trump’s breaking from his predecessors’ foreign policies. Some of this concern should be directed instead at President Macron, who risks undoing tough French approaches toward Syria and Iran, thereby threatening his goal of a thriving France and Europe. Macron is considered a quick study, so let’s hope he learns the value of some continuities.