This tense handshake offers a glimpse into Emmanuel Macron’s aggressive diplomacy style

To anyone else, it might have been a simple photo op with the US President. But to Emmanuel Macron, it was a political opportunity.

Sitting across from Donald Trump, a man defined by chaos and bluster, the French President made a strategic calculation, one he hoped would earn him respect.

With the eyes of the world on the two newly minted presidents in 2017, Macron gripped the ex-Apprentice star’s hands for several seconds, so tightly that his knuckles turned white.

Trump (left) and Macon (right) grip each other's hands with purse-lipped smiles against a backdrop of French and US flags.
Donald Trump shook hands with French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at the US Embassy in Brussels in 2017.(AP: Evan Vucci)

As the pair shook hands aggressively, locking eyes with faces tight and jaws clenched, Macron hoped to show one of the most powerful leaders on earth that he wouldn’t make “small concessions, not even symbolic ones”.

The awkward moment, forever captured on camera, only ended when Trump was finally able to break free.


Macron would later confess it was an “intentional” move to display his preferred leadership style.

“My handshake with him – it wasn’t innocent,” Macron told a French newspaper after the encounter in 2017.

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

That moment of truth has defined Macron’s diplomacy, which observers say has been one of hyper-personalisation and bluntness.

From the start, Macron has sought to rule like Jupiter — “unchallenged and detached from trivialities, like the Roman god of the skies”.

But the day-to-day demands of politics have made that lofty goal hard to reach, especially with his popularity plummeting ahead of a looming election.

And so when an ally turned around and blindsided the leader, a humiliated Macron was eager to find a way to settle the score.

The ambitious outsider

Macron has always been something of an outsider within France’s political establishment.

William Drozdiak, who released a book last year about the French leader’s efforts to shape the future of Europe, says Macron prides himself on the fact that he is not a career politician.

Emmanuel Macron wears a red flower pinned to a suit while looking over his shoulder at armed guards.
As President, Emmanuel Macron has been a controversial figure.(Reuters: Christian Hartmann)

“He had never been elected to any kind of public office before becoming President,” he told the ABC.

“And in a way, that has been part of his problem because he doesn’t have a lot of political experience.”

With a masters in public policy, Macron had been an investment banker before he was recruited to serve as then president Francois Hollande’s deputy chief of staff.

In almost no time at all, he was appointed minister of the economy, going on to make a name for himself over a package of economic measures to open up regulated sectors of the economy.

Dubbed the Macron law, the labour market reforms drove tens of thousands of people to the streets for months of protests across France.

While this divided public opinion on the young politician, Macron’s personal life also captured attention.

His wife, Brigitte Macron, used to be his teacher. Their 24-year age gap has raised eyebrows over the years, in a way that Donald Trump and his wife Melania’s never did.

The pair met in Macron’s hometown of Amiens in an after-school drama class. She was married with three kids, one of whom was in the same class as Macron.

When news of the relationship reportedly reached his parents, a 16-year-old Macron was shipped to Paris to finish his schooling. But the romance continued and the pair eventually married in 2007.

Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron
Macron’s relationship with wife Brigitte has been the object of close scrutiny for years.(Reuters: Ludovic Marin)

Since then, they have made a point of making their unconventional relationship public, appearing in celebrity magazines and portraying themselves as a modern family.

“We do not have a classic family, it’s undeniable,” Macron once told a political rally.

“But do we have less love in this family? I do not think so. Maybe there’s even more than conventional families.”

A high-stakes gamble

Macron has also built a reputation as a risk-taker, appearing to sense moments when he can take a political gamble.

That was certainly the case in 2016 when he defied his critics and started his own party, giving up a secure role in an established government where he was viewed as a potential successor.

His tilt at the presidency was another bold, calculated risk that could have ended badly.

Opponents initially dismissed the move, viewing the young politician as either overly ambitious or too green for his bid to be taken seriously.

But En Marche! was France’s answer to the rising popularity of anti-establishment parties across Europe. And its grassroots campaign successfully managed to draw in disillusioned voters from the left and the right with its promises of tax cuts, liberal social policies, and plans to strengthen the European Union.

French President-elect Emmanuel Macron
Mr Macron vowed to heal the social divisions exposed by France’s acrimonious election campaign in 2017.(AP: Thibault Camus)

Macron’s eventual victory stunned almost everyone. Not only was he France’s youngest-ever president, at just 39, but the first to not be aligned to either the Socialists or the conservatives.

“I think he’s someone who’s very hard and determined behind the amiable and seductive facade,” one of his biographers, Anne Fulda, told the BBC.

As President, Macron has continued to be a deft hand at the game of politics, building a reputation for his rather aggressive diplomacy.

Drozdiak says the French President is well known for “showing a bit too much arrogance in his dealings with the people”.

“He’s not a natural politician … so he’s willing to be much more candid and more forthright in expressing his displeasure with other states,” he says.

This approach has often been on display in Macron’s handling of diplomatic stoushes and his interactions with the public.

Macron has rolled up white sleeves and gestures as he talks while sitting at a desk in a room with gold trimmings.
Macron is known as being something of a risk taker, having made a gamble to run for the presidency without much political experience.(AP: Yoan Valat)

Only two years ago, Macron decried the “brain death” of the NATO alliance in an interview with The Economist.

And he has not shied away from recalling French ambassadors over perceived insults.

In 2019, Macron withdrew his representative from Italy for the first time since World War II over “unfounded attacks and outlandish claims” by Italian leaders.

The following year, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s suggestion the French President needed a “mental check” was met with a similarly swift response.

The underlying strategy behind France’s outcry

It’s perhaps no surprise then, that Macron hit back hard in the wake of the loss of a $90 billion submarine deal and the secretive nature of Australia’s alternative arrangement: AUKUS.

After weeks of frosty commentary from his countrymen about the last-minute “stab in the back”, a withdrawal of ambassadors and a “candid” phone call with Morrison, Macron made the depth of his displeasure known at the G20.

Scott Morrison and Emmanuel Macron bump elbows at a press conference.
France and Australia’s relationship soured further this week when Emmanuel Macron called Scott Morrison a liar.(AP: Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

When asked by an Australian reporter if he thought Morrison had lied to him about Australia’s intentions, the President replied: “I don’t think, I know.”

Not only did he think the AUKUS deal was bad news for France, but the way it played out was “detrimental to the reputation of your country and your Prime Minister”.

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French President Macron says Scott Morrison lied

The situation soured even further when a leaked text message from Macron to Morrison was published in Australian papers — an “unprecedented new low” in the eyes of French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault.

There has also been an element of strategic outcry in France’s response, according to Eglantine Staunton, who specialises in French foreign policy at the Australian National University.

“We’ve got to remember that Macron is up for re-election in April, so there was a need to respond strongly to the loss of a $90 billion contract. But I think this explanation is only the tip of the iceberg,” she told ABC local radio.

“The French are not only upset about the cancellation of the deal, they’re furious at the way the announcement … was handled and its implication for French foreign policy.”

In France’s view, she says, the submarine program was always about far more than just a contract. It was about a strong partnership between two powers of the Indo-Pacific, which would strengthen France’s role in the region.

“So the way [AUKUS] was [struck] behind France’s back and the fact that France was completely excluded was perceived as a betrayal and a humiliation…

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