Editor’s Note: Atika Shubert is a CNN senior international correspondent. The opinions in this article are those of the author.
From white-knuckle handshakes to basking in the pomp and circumstance of a military parade, French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump have built a strong relationship. The pair have regular phone calls and later this week, Macron will become the first foreign leader to make an official state visit to the US since Trump took office.
So it was perhaps no great surprise when, in a two-hour live interview by two high-profile French journalists, Macron presented himself as the decisive factor behind President Trump’s policy in Syria.
“Ten days ago, President Trump said the USA’s will is to disengage from Syria. We convinced him that it was necessary to stay,” he said. “We convinced him that it was necessary to limit these strikes to chemical weapons site despite the media frenzy around the tweets, as you may remember.”
The remarks stood out in an otherwise grueling interrogation that drilled down on the nuts and bolts of French labor policy in addition to the strikes in Syria. Macron presented himself, at 40 years old, to be the elder statesman, advising a hotheaded US president: A Trump-whisperer.
The White House was not happy and it did not take long for a ruffled response, downplaying Macron’s influence. The US mission in Syria “had not changed,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders in a statement.
“The President has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible. We are determined to completely crush ISIS and create the conditions that will prevent its return,” she said.
Macron’s words, however, did take the attention away from his domestic woes, which include several labor strikes. “Macron in battle mode” was the headline emblazoned across France’s Liberation newspaper – which certainly sounded more presidential than the headline at Le Figaro: “Macron defends his steps in a confused debate.”
The interview was meant to mark one year since Macron’s landmark election victory. But the timing, just one day after the Syria strikes, meant it had also conveniently become the platform to explain to the French public why their President had ordered French jets and warships to fire a dozen missiles into Syria.
By Monday morning, Macron was trying to spin his way out of the diplomatic faux pas: both agreeing with the White House and doubling down on his own statements.
“I did not say that neither the United States nor France was going to remain militarily committed in Syria,” he insisted in a news conference with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“Yes, the White House is right in saying that the military engagement is against ISIS and will stop the day the war against ISIS will be over. France has the same position. But yes, I am right to say that the United States – because they decided to make this intervention with us – understood that our responsibility also goes beyond the war against ISIS.”
Macron wants to put France at center stage on world issues. In the days before the attack, Macron boldly said France had “proof” that the Syrian regime had carried out a chemical weapons attack on its own people, though he has yet to detail what that proof is.
The Élysée Palace had also issued an unusual patriotic video promising the country “would shoulder its responsibility.”
Macron is a master of optics and like Trump, he uses Twitter to great effect. Rather than a heavy-handed statement from the Élysée announcing the strikes, he tweeted out photos of himself and his military commanders giving the order to strike Syria for “crossing the red line.”
Macron’s attempt to present himself as the level-headed influence on Trump follows a pattern, in which Macron looks to be Europe’s most viable leader – especially when it comes to leading the West’s diplomatic charge on Russia.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is locked in a diplomatic battle with Moscow over the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.
She also faced the wrath of British lawmakers for failing to consult parliament before committing British forces. Macron, on the other hand, simply ignored his domestic critics, as they held a toothless debate without any vote at the National Assembly.
Germany’s Russian-speaking Chancellor Angela Merkel previously played the role of broker between the United States and Russia. But Merkel, preoccupied with shoring up her weakened coalition after a disastrous election, has been supplanted by the energetic efforts of Macron.
Hours before ordering the strikes, Macron was on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, reiterating his plan to visit Moscow in May.
Perhaps Macron overreached in describing his influence on Trump’s decision-making process. But their steadfast relationship is in no doubt and his message to Moscow, and others, is clear: France is the power broker in Europe.