Emmanuel Macron is getting in Donald Trump's face

Story highlights

  • France's new leader is barely three weeks into his job
  • Macron tells US he wants to "make our planet great again"

Washington (CNN)Emmanuel Macron, France's youthful president, has only been a world leader for less than three weeks.

Yet he's already seized a role as a bastion of liberal global values, staring down both US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, two of the biggest threats to the political consensus that has dominated Western politics for decades.
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    Macron's most audacious intervention yet came on Thursday night, in a remarkable video address to the American people responding to Trump's withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord that quickly went viral. The message: Trump is an outlier against the values that made his own nation great, despite his mantra that only he can restore US greatness.
    "Tonight I wish to tell the United States, France believes in you. The world believes in you. I know that you are a great nation," Macron said in the video against a backdrop of the French tricolor and the flag of the European Union.
    "I know your history, our common history," he said, calling on scientists, engineers and "responsible citizens" disappointed by Trump's decision to find a "second homeland" in France to work together on concrete solutions to save the planet.
    Macron's flagrant foray into domestic US politics mined outrage among Trump's US opponents at his actions but it was also risky.
    While his video delighted progressives in the United States who quickly shared it on Facebook and Twitter, it is not clear that a majority of Americans will appreciate a lecture from a French president, even one as polite and respectful as Macron.
    After all, Trump directly made an "America First" argument meant to discount the influence of other nations.
    "It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with many, many other locations within our great country, before Paris, France," Trump said at the White House Thursday.
    By co-opting the President's campaign theme when he said he wanted to "make our planet great again," Macron picked a fight with an adversary who is notoriously conscious about personal slights and lashes out against any sign of public humiliation. There may be a price to pay for Franco-US relations.
    Still, Macron's appeal to Americans opposed to the President's decision on Paris appeared to be an attempt to shape the answer to a question that is circulating in European capitals right now. Is Trump's presidency and retreat from multilateral global solutions a blip, or will it outlive his White House and become a new normal for America's global role that will fundamentally restructure the global system?
    Macron, who was endorsed by former President Barack Obama during his recent election win, was laying a bet that Americans will eventually repudiate the President and return their nation to its global role.
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    Filling leadership void? And French elections near

    The timing of the video was no accident
    Speaking moments after hanging up after a phone call with Trump, Macron was making a clear bid to fill the global leadership vacuum that many allies perceive was left by the US decision to walk away from global efforts to combat climate change.
    He was also breaking the mold of his own job.
    Macron chose to address Americans, and the world, in English in a highly unusual move for a French president, the most high-profile guardian of a Francophone culture that is often seen in France us under siege from the march of English across the globe.
    It was a decision in keeping with the way Macron has quickly consolidated his power in France, shouldering the stagecraft of the presidency as he seeks to dominate parliamentary elections this month that are crucial to his hopes of pulling off sweeping labor and economic reforms.
    The video was not the first time that Macron had faced down Trump. When the two men met for the first time in Brussels last week, they exchanged a white knuckle handshake that looked more like an arm wrestle.
    Macron later told a French newspaper that the showdown was a "moment of truth" that demonstrated he would not make even small concessions to the US President.

    Standing up to Putin

    Macron put on another macho show of defiance when he met Putin on Monday at the Palace of Versailles, the resplendent former seat of French monarchs.
    Macron lavished Putin with pomp and respect and drew analogies to Peter the Great, who founded the Russian leader's home city of St. Petersburg and visited France as part of a process of opening his nation to western influences in the 17th Century.
    But Macron publicly complained during their joint press conference that Russia state news networks had acted as "agents of influence" and "lying propaganda" during an election in which the Kremlin favored his right wing rival Marine Le Pen.
    The comments marked the most personal denunciation yet of alleged Russian attempts to intervene in elections by a Western leader and contrasted with Trump's unwillingness to accept that Moscow intervened in order to boost his candidacy last year.
    Macron's gambit towards Putin and Trump is a clear sign that despite his relative youth — he is 25 years younger than the Russian leader and 30 years younger than Trump -- he will not be bullied by strongman leaders.
    His victory over Le Pen's French version of the populism that has been sweeping democracies has already elevated him to the top tier of Western leadership, alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
    But his inexperience, and Trump's capricious nature mean that Macron may be playing with fire. Other leaders, like British Prime Minister Theresa May and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have not chosen to be so open with their criticisms of the American President.
    Trump tends to respond most favorably to flattery and respect offered to him by the likes of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Saudi royal family on his recent overseas visit.

    Trump annoyed by European leaders?

    A source who spoke with Trump after the G7 summit last week told CNN's Kevin Liptak Friday that the President was annoyed after sitting through lectures from leaders including Macron and Merkel about the Paris accord.
    His comments Thursday played into the enduring conceit in American politics that Paris and France epitomize effete, liberal, globalized elites that are the antithesis of the earthly, honest American values on which Trump built his appeal to the Midwestern voters who made him President.
    He returned home from Italy believing that European leaders had ganged up on him and sought to forcibly move him from a position he believes is politically advantageous, the source said.
    Such perceptions are one reason why publicly confronting Trump over his policies -- as Merkel has also done in recent days -- may backfire and further imperil the transatlantic alliance which is vital to French and German security.
    They also reveal the conundrum foreign leaders face in the age of Trump.
    The US President's personality and policies are so polarizing that their own political interests force them to adopt a confrontational stance towards him. But that attitude inevitably further alienates Trump and pushes him in a direction that is even more retrograde to the interests of US allies.
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