Published April 25, 2018
The world seems fascinated by the strikingly warm rapport between Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron — one of those relationships that has many reaching for the cliched “bromance” label. Both men like to play up their friendship with long, vigorous hand-shakes and air kisses. They exchange endless smiling pleasantries and talk about how often they speak on the phone, like a cooing young couple.
The fascination is easy to understand given that Trump and Macron seem like opposites politically and symbolically — the champion of populism meets the paladin of globalism. And yet, politically, their rapport makes sense. Both leaders see themselves as outsiders in their own political systems, determined to change the status quo against opposition from both sides of the aisle and a hostile media.
Their status as political opposites even helps the relationship: U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May endured a domestic backlash after early attempts to ingratiate herself with Trump because they seemed to justify fears that she was driving post-Brexit Tories in a Trumpian direction. Because nobody fears this about Macron, Trump-skeptics in France see the relationship as mere transactional schmooze. Trump has reportedly found it difficult to build rapport with most world leaders, and so the author of The Art of the Deal is happy to show himself getting along so well with an important partner.
Inevitably, there is a personal aspect as well for both men. Trump is typically portrayed as a narcissist who only tolerates relationships based on abject sycophancy. But there’s evidence he’s also able to have relationships based on respect and even admiration, as long as he believes they are mutual. Macron clearly worked to flatter Trump, with a special invitation to France’s Bastille Day celebrations, complete with a private dinner in the Eiffel Tower. But Macron isn’t afraid to counter the U.S. president or disagree with him publicly. For all the caricatures, I find it easy to believe that, once proper marks of respect have been paid to soothe his insecurities, Trump might grow to respect and like an interlocutor who is neither condescending nor a boot-licker.
Meanwhile, on the French leader’s side, those who have followed his career cannot be surprised that Macron would attempt to woo Trump, or that he would succeed. Macron’s earliest biographer, Anne Fulda, presciently writing when a Macron presidential campaign was just long-shot speculation, pointed to the common thread to his astonishingly rapid career, on top of his obvious intelligence, hard work ethic and self-confidence: a striking gift for ingratiating himself to older men and becoming their “quasi-filial” protege. Macron is 40; Trump is 71 and his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is 40.
When Macron was younger, he was less artful about this ingratiating quality. During his time at ENA, the school for French bureaucratic elites, a parodic email circulated under his name, beginning: “Dear all, you see me every morning, I kiss you on the cheeks, I smile at you, but deep down, I despise you intensely.”
As soon as he joined France’s hallowed Inspection Generale des Finances, a government auditing body, he was marked out as a protege of Jean-Pierre Jouyet, 24 years his senior, then head of that institution. Jouyet would end up a decade later as President François Hollande’s chief of staff — with Macron as his deputy.
He first separated from the pack of his cohort of ultra-talented strivers when he was selected by Jacques Attali, 34 years his senior and advisor to French presidents left and right since the early 1980s, to work as rapporteur on a committee of grandees advising the government on economic policy, where he was able to rub shoulders with senior French leaders, a career-making talent for an M&A advisor building up a rolodex that would come in handy once Attali recommended him for a job in investment banking with Rothschild.
Accounts from his stint in the world of finance emphasize again his exceptional intelligence and hard work, as well as his uncanny ability to develop privileged relationships with senior leaders. He was soon named the youngest managing partner in the firm’s history. And his most consequential such relationship, of course, was with François Hollande, 23 years his senior, who picked him as economic adviser and fatefully plucked him from obscurity to become his economy minister; the rest indeed is history.
It’s easy to look down upon this aspect of Macron’s character. Certainly people have felt hurt. When Attali was politely turned down for a senior advisory role on Macron’s campaign, the old hand protested that “I invented him.” Hollande never imagined that this technocrat with no independent political base would ever become a rival, and later wrote of his “duplicity” in his memoir.
I don’t begrudge Macron this. All successful people leave bitter jealous people in their wake. Quasi-filial mentor-protege relationships are as old as life itself, and Macron’s particular gift is, on its own, neither good nor bad. But for any who’ve watched him, his Trump “bromance” is the very opposite of surprising. It is completely in character.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.