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French president challenges Trumpism in speech to Congress

French president challenges Trumpism in speech to Congress
Vice President Mike Pence, rear left, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), rear right, applaud after French President Emmanuel Macron addressed a joint meeting of Congress. (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrating the limits of their touchy-feely friendship, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered an unsubtle rebuke of President Trump's disruptive foreign policies Wednesday in a speech to a joint session of Congress that served as an extended defense of globalism.

Macron told lawmakers that the United States should remain in the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change accord, international agreements that Trump has bitterly denounced as he presses his "America first" policies.

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Macron's speech, delivered in the House chamber, spurred multiple standing ovations, many from Democrats heartened that he clearly repudiated Trump's policies even as he cast himself as a staunch political ally.

Macron upbraided those who he said were animated by the siren of nationalism, a political fault line in both Europe and America, where it was successfully mined by Trump. He also defended free trade, which Trump opposes, and climate science, which Trump has derided.

"We have two possible ways ahead," Macron said. "We can chose isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism. This is an option. It can be tempting to us as a temporary remedy to our fears."

"But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world," he added. "It will not douse, but inflame, the fears of our citizens. We have to keep our eyes wide open to the new risks right in front of us."

The speech underscored that whatever comity the two leaders have found as newly elected outsiders, their political centers of gravity remain distant.

On Tuesday, in full view of TV cameras in the White House, Trump reached over and flicked what he called a bit of dandruff off the younger man's shoulder in order to render him "perfect." Later, Macron draped his right arm over the taller man's shoulder and kept it there as they departed a news briefing.

At times in his speech Wednesday, Macron lauded policies that have flowed from closer U.S. ties to France, including joint airstrikes by U.S., French and British forces against three suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria on April 14.

But there was no question that he also sought to distance himself from the president.

Macron offered a firm denunciation of Trump's threat to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal by a self-imposed deadline of May 12 unless it is "fixed."

"We signed it, at the initiative of the United States," Macron said. "We signed it, both the United States and France. That is why we cannot say we should get rid of it like that."

The French president said supplemental agreements under discussion would address Trump's concerns. They include greater efforts to constrain Iran's support for militant groups in the Middle East, and additional monitoring of Tehran's ballistic missile program.

Macron was similarly critical of Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, which Trump dismissed last June by announcing he "was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris."

He seemed to allude directly to Trump's repeated efforts to revive America's ever-shrinking coal industry, at the expense of investments in cleaner energy sources, without mentioning the president by name.

"Some people think that securing current industries and their jobs is more urgent than transforming our economies to meet the global challenge of climate change," he said. "I hear these concerns. But we must find a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy."

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By polluting the oceans, not mitigating carbon emissions, and destroying biodiversity, "we are killing our planet," he added. "Let us face it. There is no planet B."

With a straight face, the French president tweaked Trump's campaign slogan as he called for environmental policies "to make our planet great again."

Macron also took aim at the president's objections to global trade deals, which he said had created jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.

"A commercial war opposing allies is not consistent with our mission, with our history, with our current commitments for the global security," he said. "At the end of the day, it will destroy jobs, increase prices and the middle class will have to pay for it."

"Legitimate concerns" should be dealt with by negotiating within the World Trade Organization, he said.

"We wrote these rules," he said. "We should follow them."

Macron's speech to Congress followed two days in which he and his wife, Brigitte, were feted by the president and his wife, Melania.

The foursome took a helicopter ride Monday night to George Washington's riverside estate at Mount Vernon in Virginia, where they ate dinner on the terrace. On Tuesday, the two presidents offered warm toasts at the first state dinner of the Trump administration.

Even if the seeming closeness of the couples did not reflect shared political positions, the visit marked a reversal from the animosities of the George W. Bush era.

France did not join the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003, arguing that an invasion was unwarranted. Republicans in Congress responded by renaming French fries in the Capitol cafeterias as "freedom fries" so they would not be sullied by the connection.

Macron's visit focused instead on the centuries-long alliance between France and America. He reflected on the critical support France gave rebellious colonists in the Revolution, the French engineer who laid out Washington's streets, and the shared pride in cultural figures like Ernest Hemingway and James Baldwin, who took root in both countries. He spoke of responsibilities "inherited from our collective history."

"Both in the United States and Europe, we are living in a time of anger and fear, because of these current global threats," he said. "But these feelings do not build anything. You can play with fears and angers for a time, but they do not construct anything."

If he was speaking directly to Trump, he did not say.

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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