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COLUMN-Commentary: Macron’s surprise gift to Trump

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. The opinions expressed here are his own.)

By John Lloyd

April 27 (Reuters) - Emmanuel Macron, the 40-year-old president of France, came to the United States this week to cement his relationship with Donald Trump, the 71-year-old U.S. president he calls his good friend. He came, too, to save the Iran nuclear deal.

The three-day state visit was a vivid display of Macron’s political showmanship, a kind not seen since Britain’s Tony Blair left the political scene more than a decade ago. During a joint press conference, Macron kissed Trump on the cheek, a Gallic gesture which seemed to embarrass the American a little. Trump’s recovery line: “I like this guy a lot!”

Politics at that level must be a show, in which Trump, the ex-reality TV show star, should dominate. But he’s often clumsy in public, showing ignorance of detail, resorting to lame phrases. Macron, who attended the École nationale d’administration – since 1945 charged with creating the country’s governing and business elite – shows all that finishing school’s easy mastery, along with his own self-confidence.

Macron’s speech to the joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday was a French classic: a first act of throbbingly sincere evocation of U.S. and French history as revolutionary countries, of their common devotion to freedom and democracy, followed by a second act in which he laid down his own views on the world order. When these are explained to Trump, he may regret his affection for Macron, who rammed home fundamental differences with implied criticisms of the U.S. president’s stances on free trade, climate change, nationalism and multilateralism.

And on Iran. The multinational Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement lifts many sanctions on Iran in exchange for a closely monitored renunciation by the Islamic Republic of any development of nuclear weapons. Trump has repeatedly described it as the “worst deal ever” and vowed to scrap it. Macron, in his speech to the U.S. legislators, reminded them, and the president, that the deal was initiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama – and that it should not be scrapped unless something better was to be put in its place.

That something better seems to be the possibility of a super-deal, in which the existing agreement is one of four pillars – the others being a long-term deal to come into being after the present one expires; pressure on Iran to suspend its ballistic missile program (a particular concern of Washington) and a full-scale effort, by Europe and the United States, to produce an all-embracing framework for regional peace.

Macron got an ambiguous agreement from Trump that he and European partners might work something out, a demonstration for Trump that making a threat to ditch the deal gets the Europeans scurrying around to find a way of accommodating him.

Has Trump, the great dealmaker, actually set the stage, with help from his friend Macron, for a breakthrough – not just on Iran, but in a region in which tensions involving Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others are escalating dangerously?

There are three important actors in play whose actions will answer that question sooner or later. Trump may, in the end, be reluctant to break with the deal’s European signatories – Russia and China have signed too – especially after the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as his own State Department have certified that Iran is observing its conditions. And would his planned talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on “denuclearization” have any chance of success if the dictator saw a U.S. agreement so lightly discarded?

Then there’s Macron. His performance in Washington was impeccable, and inspiring – for liberals. “We can build the 21st century world order,” he told the legislators, “based on a new breed of multilateralism...”

But the domestic ice on which Macron skates grows thinner. Strikes by railway workers, Air France pilots and others continue; he cannot shake the appellation that he is “the president of the rich.” His drive to create a more integrated Europe, and all-European parties, has met with no more than tepid, shifty support – including from Germany, where seemingly weary Chancellor Angela Merkel leads an already-fractious coalition. Resistance in France to radical economic and labor reforms remains strong; European states also fear relinquishing national control in the face of rising public anti-Europeanism. Macron needs a success, and he has had one – on the public stage. Behind it, the aura is fading.

The third actor is Iran itself. Its influence in Syria and on Iraq, its continued sponsorship of Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and its ambition to lead the anti-Israel struggle mask a weak economy, the continued exodus of many of its smartest workers, little foreign investment and a growing series of revolts and demonstrations by the middle class. Its façade can be formidable, but it’s a regime in decline. Which does not, of course, make it easier to deal with. On the contrary, it has already made clear it will brook no changes to the agreement.

Yet the Macron visit may have achieved a surprising result. The U.S. president looked and sounded more... sensible. If the Frenchman has shown him, even dimly, that the leader of the free world must embrace the ideals of liberty, democracy and the rule of law as well as respect agreements, then he may have started the education of Donald J. Trump into something resembling the president his country deserves. (Reporting by John Lloyd)