PARIS – After French President Emmanuel Macron said that Europe needs to defend itself from the United States, its aides said they were misunderstood.
But the idea is not so far-fetched.
Macron is leading a rearguard action to save the system of international cooperation that the United States helped to build, but which President Donald Trump has scratched from his settlement.
As Trump arrived in Paris for commemorations marking 100 years from the armistice that led to the end of the First World War, he is missing an international peace forum that Macron is launching on Sunday.
The forum is part of Macron's efforts to defend the idea that nations should work together rather than at the expense of the other. But without the leader of the only remaining superpower in the world, the forum will lose some of its meaning.
Europe feels deeply threatened, meanwhile, by Trump's declared plan to snatch a nuclear treaty with Russia from the United States that Europeans see as a cornerstone of post-Cold War peace and security. The United States says Russia is still violating it.
The tension obscured the last meeting of the two presidents on Saturday at the French presidential palace. A French present at the meeting said that Macron stressed that in making decisions on treaties such as what Trump said he wanted to abandon, the United States "should not forget something under the nose, which is a European ally".
Most Americans have never heard of the treaty being discarded, but have a clear meaning for European policymakers. The Intermediate Intermediate Force Treaty of 1987 grew after years of friction over a Soviet nuclear accumulation and a threatened deployment of US missiles to Europe.
Macron warned that if the treaty is demolished and Russia resumes building the type of missiles it has banned, weapons could easily reach European targets – but not the United States.
Another sore point for Macron and Trump: the issue of a common European army, which Macron defended but could overlap with the US-led NATO alliance.
Macron said in an interview this week with the Europe-1 radio that, when we talk about the cyber-sphere and the threat of extrapolating nuclear treaties, "we should protect ourselves when it comes to China, Russia and even the United States".
Later in the interview, the French leader spoke of a European army. Trump has grouped the two topics together and tweeted while the Air Force One landed in Paris on Friday night that "insulting" Macron wanted an army to defend Europe from the United States.
Trump's tweet was particularly fierce for Macron, one of the strongest American allies in Europe.
The idea that Macron would see the United States as an opponent "is totally against our alliance and our 250-year history, France and the United States have been joined," said another French official, evoking the camps of World War I, where American and French soldiers fought on the same side and the joint operation of the nations against Syria at the start of this year.
When Macron took power for the first time, he expressed the hope that he would be able to exercise a restrictive influence on Trump, then as soon as he was elected.
But pulling the United States from a climate change deal signed in Paris and other international agreements that France embraces – and now, with its non-diplomatic tweet before meeting Macron – Trump made it clear that the French leader is not holding the reins .
Macron and his aides climbed on Saturday to clarify what the president sees as the threats facing Europe today. These include Russia's political intrusion and military accumulation, as well as the feeling that Trump is abandoning US commitments to European allies.
Macron stressed that he pledged to increase French military spending even before Trump scolded NATO members last year for not paying enough for his defense.
The exchange of tension with Trump is only the last challenge for Macron, who was seen as a bulwark against growing European nationalism when he was elected a year ago.
The pro-business and pro-EU president is increasingly weakened at the national level for unpopular and isolated economic policies in Europe, where nationalist groups have gained ground.
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