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Tue 27 Aug 2019 12:25 PM

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Trump gets handed the lead role in Macron's Iranian drama at the G-7

As Emmanuel Macron passed the baton to Donald Trump, who seems serious about wanting to host the next G-7 at his resort in Miami, there is still little sign of collective responsibility for global problems

Trump gets handed the lead role in Macron's Iranian drama at the G-7
France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) and US President Donald Trump shake hands during a joint-press conference in Biarritz, south-west France, on the third day of the annual G7 Summit.

Standing next to Donald Trump, at the end of three days of high-stakes diplomacy, Emmanuel Macron was finally ready to make his final move and end his Group of Seven summit in Biarritz in spectacular style.

In secrecy, his exhausted advisers had worked the back channels to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as their boss took the US leader into his confidence and got his buy-in for a tentative mandate to take the lead on the Iran crisis.

“I’m convinced a deal could be found if Rouhani and Trump meet,” Macron told a packed room of reporters for the final joint news conference.

Now it was down to Trump, who stretched out the tension with a few reflections on how much Iran has changed before uttering the words Macron wanted to hear. Yes, he’d meet the Iranian “if the circumstances were correct.”

For the 41-year-old host it was a tangible win after a series of borderline disastrous summits that have shaken the foundations of the multilateral order. But it is also was a potentially short-lived one: Trump’s mood could sour on the idea, and the obstacles in the way of such a historic meeting are countless, not least that Trump’s hosting of the G-7 in 2020 adds yet another variable.

Within hours Rouhani himself doused some of the optimism, saying that he isn’t interested in a photo opportunity with Trump and that Washington held the key to changing the relationship.

Paradigm shifts

Still, Macron’s attempt to rewrite the rules of engagement at international gatherings such as these represents a baby step toward at least trying to restore the understood norms that existed before Trump took office. The bulk of his effort was in finding ways to try and pin Trump down by alternating flattery with straight talk.

Macron explained that with Trump one has to be “very direct.” Lots of firm, virile handshakes, but also pulling out all the stops to impress.

But his is not a guaranteed model of future success. As he passed the baton to Trump, who seems serious about wanting to host the next G-7 at his resort in Miami, there is still little sign of collective responsibility for global problems. The proof is in the binning of the final communique, once a market-moving document that tackled currencies and economic policy.

Jokes, kisses

Macron managed to push climate change to the top of the agenda, but he also gave Trump the easy option to skip the session on biodiversity, which in fact the president did. Last year, Angela Merkel was caught leaning sternly over Trump with his arms crossed. This year, they were sharing jokes and even exchanging kisses.

Hectoring was replaced with gentle warnings of the risks of his trade war.

Macron’s decision to eliminate the communique avoided a repeat of the debacle in Canada last year when Trump humiliated Canada’s Justin Trudeau with his refusal to sign up to the joint statement. And to a degree it liberated them to chat with candour, without worrying about an end product - in agreement that they disagreed, leaders could simply opt out where they wished.

“There was a lot of nervousness at the outset, a lot of expectations, a lot of tensions, and we had a bit of conflict,” Macron said.

Never better

For the French leader, the crucial moment came when Trump landed on Saturday and Macron pulled him into an unplanned private lunch within earshot of the Atlantic. That was his chance to let the president in on his Iranian plan.

“He wasn’t trying to impress his people, I wasn’t trying to impress his people. We were just trying to impress each other,” Trump said later. “We’ve never had a better relationship.”

For a while it was touch and go. US officials groused about the summit agenda - designed, they said, to embarrass their president. Both sides said the first evening’s dinner was tense, particularly as Trump made the case for Russia’s Vladimir Putin to be allowed back in the fold.

In the warm, coastal surroundings that in the 19th century attracted French Emperor Napoleon III, the mood steadily improved. Trump kissed Merkel on both cheeks during the group photoshoot on Sunday. The first ladies sipped sangria together. Johnson took a morning swim in the Atlantic.

When Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made his surprise landing in Biarritz, Macron’s advisers held their breaths. But Trump simply retreated to his hotel while the French, the Germans and the British met with him near the summit venue.

‘Incredible job’

By Monday, Trump was lauding Macron for his “incredible job” and a “truly successful G-7” hosted by a “spectacular leader.” They hugged and Macron, his face almost hidden from the press, winked at his American counterpart.

Macron will know that the political challenges of a world in flux haven’t gone away despite a refreshing intake of sea air. But those issues have been held at bay, at least until the next presidential tweet storm.

When Trump had finally ceded the summit podium to his host for a closing news conference, a reporter referenced the US leader’s exuberant praise of the summit and asked the French president if she’d witnessed the birth of a new era of Macronian diplomacy.

“That’s not for me to answer,” Macron said, smiling proudly.