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Emmanuel Macron: my handshake with Trump was 'a moment of truth'

As handshakes go, it was unusually intense: a fierce and protracted mano a mano of white knuckles, crunched bones, tightened jaws and fixed smiles that sent the internet and the world’s media into a spin.

It was also, Emmanuel Macron has revealed, entirely intentional. 

At his first major appearance on the world stage, the 39-year-old French president displayed a relaxed confidence and steely purpose that altogether belied his youth and inexperience.

“My handshake with him – it wasn’t innocent,” Macron told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper in an interview on Sunday. 

“It’s not the be-all and the end-all of a policy, but it was a moment of truth.”

The much commented-upon power play, during which each man held the other’s gaze for a long moment, was described by one observer as a “screw you in handshake form”. 

It ended when the US president, after two attempts, finally succeeding in disengaging.

“Donald Trump, the Turkish president or the Russian president see relationships in terms of a balance of power, Macron said. 

“That doesn’t bother me. 

I don’t believe in diplomacy by public abuse, but in my bilateral dialogues I won’t let anything pass.”

The French president, who had never held elected office before decisively defeating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in this month’s runoff, added: “That’s how you ensure you are respected. 

You have to show you won’t make small concessions – not even symbolic ones.”

At home, Macron faces huge challenges. 

Though recent polls suggest his La République en Marche party is on course to win next month’s general elections, the country remains deeply divided, battling persistent high unemployment and slow economic growth.

But the newly elected leader’s three days in Brussels and at this weekend’s G7 summit in Taormina, Sicily, showed him well able to transfer the optimistic but determined tone he brought to his presidential campaign to a bigger arena.

He is eager to cultivate a more dignified, presidential image for the office, making clear – though without spelling it out – he feels the bling-obsessed excesses of Nicolas Sarkozy and gossipy intimacy of François Hollande, his two immediate predecessors, had combined to diminish it.

Macron and Trump met for the first time for lunch before a gathering of European and Nato leaders in Brussels last Thursday. 

They confronted each other again later that afternoon, on a blue welcome carpet outside Nato headquarters.

During that encounter, Macron pointedly swerved past Trump to embrace German chancellor Angela Merkel. 

He then shook hands with the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, before finally greeting the US leader.

Seemingly out for revenge, Trump responded by yanking the French president’s hand hard towards him in an apparent attempt to re-establish dominance – a technique he has been seen applying in the past, notably with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

In Italy, Macron struck up an instant rapport with the 45-year-old Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, TV cameras capturing images of the two chatting and strolling to the summit venue together – in contrast to Trump, 70, who waited to get a lift in golf buggy.

“Justin has been inspiring,” Macron said afterwards. 

“We belong to a generation of leaders that will deeply renew practices and a vision of global affairs.” 

The French leader also clearly gets on well with Merkel, whom he has now met three times in the first two weeks of his five-year presidency.

Theresa May, for her part, appeared touched when Macron expressed his condolences to her in English after the Manchester terrorist attack that left 22 people dead. 

“We were very shocked, because we know how this can hurt,” he said. 

“Because they attack our young, and very young people.”

But while the French and British leaders pushed hard together to get a separate G7 statement calling on internet providers and social media companies to do more to actively fight extremism, Macron did not give an inch when May asked for parallel Brexit talks.

He was also reportedly particularly outspoken – though not, ultimately, successful – in urging Trump to announce at the G7 that he would not to pull the US out of the Paris climate change accords. 

He remained optimistic afterwards, saying he thought Trump was pragmatic.

“I have good hopes that having considered the arguments put forward by various people and his country’s own interest he will confirm his commitment in his own time,” Macron said. 

“I saw someone who listens and who is willing to work.”

On Syria, where extremists plotted attacks against France and where Europe’s migrant crisis began, he said the international community must talk to Russia to change the framework for getting out of the military crisis in Syria, and to “build a much more collective and integrated inclusive political solution”.

Macron will have an early opportunity to do just that when he hosts Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, at the royal palace in Versailles on Monday – a meeting that will be coloured not just by tensions over Moscow’s role in Syria and Ukraine, but Putin’s support for Le Pen. 

Observers will be watching the handshake between the two men with added interest.


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