(Bloomberg) -- On a damp Tuesday evening in December, most of France was focused on the Yellow-Vest crisis that had seen demonstrators smashing up Paris.
But holed up in his Elysee palace, President Emmanuel Macron and his team were dealing with a greater threat to the status quo not just in France, but across the western world. A White House contact had warned Macron that Donald Trump was about to announce the pullout of U.S. troops from Syria.
Such a decision would be a body-blow to U.S. allies in the European Union. It risked releasing hundreds of Islamic State veterans and giving Russia’s Vladimir Putin influence over the flow of refugees which has fueled a populist backlash in the EU. For Macron, it heightened his concerns that the U.S. might back away from another, more sacred commitment: the NATO defense alliance.
As Macron prepared for a call with the White House that evening, his view on Syria was informed by a broader realization after 18 months of frustrating efforts to woo Trump: EU leaders can no longer rely on the U.S. to help underpin European security.
This account of how Macron was forced to rethink his entire relationship with Trump is based on conversations over several months with three people who have detailed knowledge of the president’s thinking.
On the call that night in December, the 41-year-old president reminded Trump of his pledge to stand alongside his allies in the fight against terrorism and urged him to consider his responsibilities to Europe. Less than 24 hours later, Trump announced the withdrawal in a tweet.
The decision came as a shock even in Washington, and triggered the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. For Macron and his inner circle, it was a watershed moment.
Though in public, Macron still maintains that the historical alliance between France and the U.S. runs too deep to be jeopardized by disagreements between two presidents, something in him snapped.
The previous month Trump had offered Macron assurances both on Syria and on NATO during a visit to Paris. A few weeks later, the Syria commitment was history. From now on, the French leader will assume that Trump is liable to ditch any commitment he might have made if he decides it serves his interests.
The French leader had invested significant amounts of time and political capital in trying to establish a relationship with Trump since coming to power in Paris in May 2017.
Early last year, people close to him were keen to play up the symmetry between the two presidents. They argued that both were political outsiders who’d shaken up the establishment with their election victories, and their straight-talking style made them a good match personally.
They shared macho handshake games and private talks, watched military parades and had dinner at the Eiffel Tower with a special, meat-heavy menu, to appeal to the U.S. leader’s taste.
“Both of us are probably mavericks,” Macron said in April during a state visit to Washington. “We have a very special relationship.”
That effort succeeded in making Macron the guy you call when you want to speak to Europe.
Call logs from both presidents’ offices, which can sometimes be incomplete, indicate the two men held at least 19 phone calls last year. Trump spoke to Merkel just three times and dished out public humiliations to Britain’s Theresa May—in July he trashed her Brexit plans—making it clear where she stood in the White House spheres of influence.
But Trump’s America First policy was always likely to become a problem and that became clear as Europe was drawn into the U.S. trade offensive. Macron’s lobbying effort during his April trip to the White House failed to avert tariffs on European steel and aluminum. Just as he failed to keep the U.S. in the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris Climate Accord.
The phone records suggest that the relationship started to cool after that visit, with their recorded conversations becoming less frequent. Before that they spoke as many as six times a month. Since then the contact has dwindled.
By the time Trump returned to France to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I, any pretense at a rapport was gone.
Macron lectured Trump in front of dozens of world leaders, saying nations that put their own interests first had lost their moral compass. Trump responded by mocking France for its military defeats to Germany.
Behind the scenes, French aides insisted Macron’s attacks on nationalism were not directed at Trump. But they also signaled that the French leader was deliberately taking a more assertive posture in diplomatic relations.
Talking to people close to the president around the turn of the year, their confidence in his ability to do business with Trump has evaporated. One described the Elysee’s attitude to Trump as “clear-eyed.” Asked about reports in January that Trump had considered pulling out of NATO officially, the person said nothing the U.S. could do now would surprise the French leader.
Macron’s approach to Trump at this point is more about managing the U.S. president’s impulsiveness rather than genuine engagement. His advisers plot their response to different scenarios, they seek intel on his state of mind and his personal agenda, and try to work out how that might affect the post-war alliance with Europe.
But the Syria withdrawal still stung.
“An ally must be reliable, and coordinate with other allies,” Macron said from a military base in Mali, where French troops are involved in anti-terrorism operations. Macron said he “very deeply regretted” Trump’s decision.
After the December announcement, Macron kept up the pressure on Trump for a time with several subsequent calls, trying to persuade the U.S. leader to change his mind, or at least allow an orderly withdrawal.
He urged Trump to stay on the battle field. He told him the U.S. army was the backbone of the coalition forces and warned of the message it would send to Iran and Syria’s Bashar al Assad if he left with the job half done. It made little difference.
The final U.S. pullout may still be some weeks away as U.S.-backed Syrian forces launch an offensive against Islamic State in the east of the country. Macron hasn’t spoken to Trump for over a month.
Macron’s discussions about French security strategy are now framed by question marks over all joint French-U.S. operations. The two countries are currently fighting together against Islamists in Africa and the Middle East and combating piracy in the Indian Ocean. France is also supporting U.S. efforts to contain China’s expansionary instincts in the South China Sea.
America’s commitment to NATO, though, is the elephant in the room. Under Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s founding text of 1949, all are obliged to come to the defense of any members that come under attack.
That was the foundation of the western bulwark against the Soviet bloc during the Cold War and has served to deter Russian efforts to extend its influence in eastern Europe since then.
Trump though has frequently shown tepid support for the alliance, complaining that U.S. allies don’t spend enough on defense and raising questions about Article V.
An actual U.S. withdrawal would mean a tectonic shift in the global order and hand Putin the biggest victory of his career.
More recently, however, Trump has switched from criticism to claiming credit for getting European allies to bolster their defense spending. At the armistice commemoration in Paris in November, the U.S. leader told Macron he was committed to NATO. On Jan. 17 Trump said he was backing NATO “100 percent” and then added a rider: allies should consider buying American missiles.
But doubts remain. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo put international organizations on notice that they shouldn’t take U.S. support for granted during a December speech in Brussels, where NATO has its headquarters. Organizations such as the EU and the United Nations, Pompeo said, “must be reformed or eliminated.”
For Macron, the doubts are enough to shift his outlook: a security guarantee you can’t depend on is no longer a guarantee.
“Trump’s attitude and statements affect the credibility of NATO as a deterrent and a defense instrument,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “The question is whether this is a transitory crisis for the European-U.S. post-war alliance, or something deeper.”
The two men aren’t due to meet again until the G-20 summit in Japan in June. Then Macron himself will host the G-7 leaders in France in August.
Welcoming the G-7 to the Atlantic resort of Biarritz will give the French some control of the choreography. Macron’s team has observed the drama Trump caused at recent international gatherings in Canada and Argentina and they are leaning toward not even attempting a joint statement at the end of the meeting.
Such a departure from protocol offers a bleak view of the state of relations between the U.S. and its allies. But it’s one less opportunity for Trump to cause trouble.
--With assistance from Jennifer Epstein and Geraldine Amiel.
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