Since before there was a United States, Americans have had a love affair with Paris. President Donald Trump, who will leave for the French capital on Wednesday, does not share that affection.
Few cities have been the subject of Trump’s derision and mockery like Paris. He has painted the city as a dystopian land of terror attacks with radicalized neighborhoods, a city “so, so, so out of control, so dangerous,” as he declared in June 2016.
He also has held it up as a symbol of a global system that takes advantage of the United States and its workers, proudly proclaiming he represents “Pittsburgh, not Paris” as he pulled the U.S. from a global climate deal.
The feeling appears to be mutual. Just 14 percent of people in France have confidence that Trump will “do the right thing regarding world affairs” according to the Pew Research Center, down from more than 75 percent who had confidence in former President Barack Obama. George W. Bush’s numbers were similarly low by the end of his presidency.
Now, Trump heads to the city he says lives “in fear," where he will meet Thursday with a young and dynamic new president, Emmanuel Macron, who has made his unwillingness to be cowed by Trump abundantly clear.
Trump will also have lunch with military officials, tour the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte and attend Bastille Day events on Friday, France’s major national holiday.
The White House said Trump would discuss Syria and countering terrorism. But coming on the heels of two trips during which Trump was at odds with other world leaders — Macron criticized the United States over its climate stance during a closed-door meeting at last week’s G-20 summit, two people briefed on it said — some observers wonder why the trip is even happening.
“Macron is still fairly popular; he’s just been elected. … But at the same time, I’m pretty sure a majority of people don’t understand why he’s actually hosting Donald Trump,” said Philippe Le Corre, a France expert at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who previously served with the French Ministry of Defense. “It’s also interesting that Trump, who has had two fairly difficult trips to Europe, is actually willing to come to Europe.”
“He may like a good parade,” Le Corre quipped, noting Trump and Macron are expected to attend a Bastille Day parade together.
The White House has billed the trip as a gesture of allegiance, saying Trump “looks forward to reaffirming America’s strong ties of friendship with France, to celebrating this important day with the French people, and to commemorating the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I.”
To be sure, even if the two country’s leaders hardly see eye to eye, many see room for the friendship between the nations to continue.
“The French-American relationship has always been strong,” said Jean-Marc Gaultier, president of the French-American Chamber of Commerce. While Macron and Trump have “different styles,” Gaultier said he sees Macron’s invitation as “a sign that he wants to get along with President Trump.”
France’s military, which Trump will see on display at the parade, could prove a basis of understanding for the two leaders. Trump has long agitated for NATO members to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, per a 2014 agreement, and to do more in the fight on terrorism. The White House was already signaling ahead of the trip that France is something of an exemplar on that front.
“France is currently spending 1.8 percent of its GDP, so it’s very close to the 2 percent target that was agreed at Wales in 2014,” a senior administration official said on Tuesday, adding that the White House expects the French to meet the target. “France is far and away one of the largest and strongest military members of the alliance," spends "an awful lot" on defense now and "carries a heavy load in the counterterrorism fight.”
But Trump’s own harsh words toward France could undercut any sense of solidarity. In the past, he has slammed France as weak on counterterrorism.
“France is no longer France,” he said in July 2016.
“France is a disaster,” he told a crowd that September.
And in a March 2016 interview, he made the unsubstantiated claim that parts of Paris are under Sharia law, referring to discredited claims of “no-go zones” where many citizens and law enforcement won’t travel.
“You have sections of Paris where the police don’t want to go there and probably have areas where they probably practice Sharia law,” he said.
Protesters are expected to demonstrate against Trump, though it is unclear to what extent. Even if there is a certain disdain for Trump, there could still be respect for his position, Le Corre said.
“People respect the fact that the U.S. came and rescued France twice,” he said. “There is certainly this chemistry between the two nations.”
The French-American relationship goes beyond the heads of state. Americans from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to Ernest Hemingway and Jacqueline Kennedy have extolled the French capital, and it remains a popular tourist destination.
Whether Macron and Trump can tap into that chemistry remains to be seen. Their initial meeting included a now-infamous handshake, in which they seemed to grip too hard and hold on too long. The 39-year-old Macron later said the strained greeting was no accident: He called it a “moment of truth.”
Kelsey Tamborrino and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.