It has been easy to forget, in recent decades when France has been somewhat estranged from America, that it was the United States’ first ally. Eager to cause trouble for Britain, it offered military support to the US in 1778, just two years after the Declaration of Independence.
Now, 239 years later, the relationship flourishes, with two heads of state new to their roles – Presidents Macron and Trump – providing new impetus to America’s oldest alliance. The circumstances of this coupling are remarkable. Mr Trump is a pariah in liberal circles such as those populated by M Macron and his followers; yet M Macron asked him to share Bastille Day with him, and his first Quatorze Juillet in office at that.
It gave an opportunity to M Macron’s opponents, and some of his erstwhile supporters, to criticise him. But it also provided M Macron with an opportunity to show that he could, as it were on behalf of Europe, help civilise Mr Trump by engaging with him, instead of increasing his pariah status by repudiating him. And his hope is that Mr Trump will, as a result of the relationship M Macron has chosen to forge with him, review his much-deplored decision to withdraw America from the Paris climate accord.
If that happens, M Macron’s international credit will soar – and a survey by the Portland Group already shows that France has, under its new president, become the world’s leading exponent of ‘soft power’ – the ability to exert diplomatic and cultural influence on other nations.
It has not always been a smooth ride. Relations in the mid-19th century were poor after President Jackson demanded reparations for damage to US property done during the Napoleonic Wars.
Then Napoleon III favoured the losing side – the South – in the American Civil War, not least because the attitudes of the Confederacy were not far removed from those of a reactionary European monarchy. Up until the 1850s most French policy towards the US had been shaped by how the nations could co-operate to disadvantage Britain. But, France could not offer practical help to the Confederacy without the support of British sea and military power; and the British, sensibly in an era of imperial expansion when already extensively committed overseas, refused to get involved. It was fortunate for France, in terms of its relationship with the US, that it was therefore forced to keep out of America’s business.
Instead, once Napoleon III had lost his throne after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Franco-American relations resumed a positive trajectory. The two nations had republicanism in common – France, after 1870, was the only major European country to be a republic, and would remain so until the early 20th century. The gift to America in 1884 of the Statue of Liberty gave concrete form to the republics’ shared values; and in 1918, a year after America had entered the Great War, a million doughboys arrived on the Western Front and made a decisive contribution to the defeat of Germany. President Wilson failed, however, to restrain Clemenceau’s demands for German reparations, an imposition that assisted the rise of Hitler. When American troops next arrived in France, in 1944, it was to help liberate it from Nazi occupation.
The souring of the relationship post-war was partly attributable to the unease many French felt at being beholden to America for their freedom, and also for their economic solvency – America wrote off debt dating back to the Great War, and made new grants under the Marshall Plan.
But there was also a sense of American culture infiltrating France, not just the ubiquity of Coca-Cola and Hollywood films, but the image of Jean Seberg selling the New York Herald Tribune on the boulevards of Paris in A Bout de Souffle reflected how America was imposing its view of world events on the peoples of other nations.
There was a more serious problem: France wanted to work with America on the development of the nuclear deterrent, but President Eisenhower refused, believing the Fourth Republic was too unreliable. The Fifth Republic was little better. Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle had history from the Second World War, and de Gaulle was determined to develop France’s own force de frappe. Franco-American relations reached a 20th century nadir in 1966, when de Gaulle withdrew France from Nato: but once he left office in 1969 a thaw gradually set in. The relationship remained, however, a roller-coaster.
At the time of the first Gulf War in 1991 President Mitterrand committed his country wholeheartedly to the American-led effort. By contrast, in 2003 Jacques Chirac fiercely opposed the second war, provoking George W Bush to brand the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.
Perhaps even more ridiculous was the bid to re-brand the celebrated American delicacy, French Fries, “freedom fries”.
That was the degree of damage M Macron had to repair. He does so with a fair wind: a poll in 2015 showed 82% of French having a favourable opinion of America – though that may have changed given the widespread disapprobation in which so many Europeans hold Mr Trump. M Macron’s decision to court Mr Trump in a way most European leaders would find impossible – one can hardly conceive of Chancellor Merkel doing it – was both shrewd and cynical.
With Britain on its way out of the EU, M Macron can legitimately argue he is the EU’s link man with Europe’s most important ally: and that is a valuable role for him, and for France, to have, and adds further to their ‘soft power’.
He has ingratiated himself with Mr Trump by a direct appeal to the US President’s vanity, vulgarity and lack of sophistication: but that’s diplomacy. Thus far, his electorate sees the benefits.
Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs