Even in the face of Trump’s sexism, Macron is a genius in diplomacy

Donald Trump tells Brigitte Macron she’s ‘in good shape’ – video

Within hours of Air Force One touching down in Paris there was fresh confirmation that no foreign visit by this US president comes without its risks. Betraying what the kindest interpretation would describe as an old-fashioned eye for the ladies – let’s face it, he is 71 – Donald Trump had strayed from the conventional introductions to compliment his host’s wife, Brigitte, on her figure. He then turned to her husband, the president of France, to remark: “She’s in such good physical shape. Beautiful, isn’t she beautiful?”

This unfortunate sequence will, no doubt, go down in Macron family legend. It may also be replayed for new generations of French diplomats to prepare them for – how shall we say? – the unconventional and unexpected. Nor was there any disaster. It would take more than a sexist, off-colour remark by a bumbling American president to faze this smooth young French head of state and his wife.

For what we are seeing, even more vividly than at the G20 summit in Hamburg a week ago, is a study in diplomatic contrast, and in diplomacy itself. Trump seemed to crash into Paris from another, more basic, more elemental world. Paris offered the very opposite: elegance, precision, and that great French quality, discretion, but also a canny appraisal of its guest.

Lurking somewhere in Emmanuel Macron’s team, there has to be a genius in the diplomatic arts; perhaps Macron himself, with his university thesis on Machiavelli. The decision to invite Trump for Bastille Day, to view the Champs Élysées parade alongside Macron, capitalised on what would appear to be a rather manufactured anniversary – the centenary of the US entry into the first world war – and the participation of American troops in the parade.

But the military display – always an impressive spectacle – and the celebration of the French-US entente, in a bilateral, pre-Nato form, has everything it needs to please Trump, with his suspicions of collective security. Add the visit to Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides – the august surroundings, the subtle hint (maybe) that Macron himself is the youngest head of state since then – and the dinner at the Eiffel Tower (we have a rather good tower, too), and you have a masterclass, a very French masterclass, in diplomacy.

In the two months of his presidency, Macron already has visits from both the US and Russian presidents under his belt. Each invitation was bold and entailed risk. Each used a bilateral occasion as a pretext (the military centenary for Trump, an exhibition marking 300 years since Peter the Great’s visit to France for Vladimir Putin). And each in its own way, in the backdrops and the mood – pomp and tourism for Trump; the opulence of Versailles for Putin – was tailored to please and flatter the guest.

When did we British lose this facility? David Cameron managed to offend most of his fellow Europeans (and that was even before the Brexit referendum). Having rushed to be the first foreign leader to visit Trump after his inauguration, Theresa May made an overhasty offer of a state visit – an offer that was actually not in her gift to make – which was then withdrawn in the light of political and popular hostility. Or rather, Trump was persuaded to cry off for fear of protests.

And Macron’s audacity may yet win him an extra prize. Having stood by his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate change accord in Hamburg, Trump hinted to Macron that there might be some adjustment to the US position. “Something could happen with respect to the Paris accord,” he said. Well, maybe it could – or maybe, after a day’s immersion, even the rough-hewn Donald Trump is absorbing a little of that inimitable French diplomatic style.

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