President Trump arrived here on Saturday for three days of meetings with world leaders at a Group of 7 economic summit that was already turning contentious even on a largely ceremonial first day.
Each of the leaders at the annual summit of the world’s seven largest industrialized economies is facing domestic turmoil and brings low expectations about collectively tackling major global challenges, from climate change to slowing economies.
The challenge other leaders seemed most focused on was the president of the United States.
Trump added fresh turmoil Friday when he demanded U.S. companies stop doing business in China, and said he would raise tariffs on Chinese imports as high as 30% in response to Beijing’s decision to place added tariffs on U.S. goods. It marked yet another incendiary escalation in a trade war that has rattled investors, worried central bankers and clouded the global economy.
Looking to present a united front and to set an agenda broader and more unifying than trade, the summit’s host, French President Emmanuel Macron, surprised Trump at the opulent Hotel du Palais with a private lunch on the patio.
Although some White House officials grumbled about Macron’s unexpected invite, both leaders spoke optimistically afterward about potential for progress at the three-day summit.
“This will be very important,” Macron said. “We will be allies, friends.”
Trump responded in kind: “So far, so good,” he said. “The weather is fantastic. Everybody’s getting along. I think we will accomplish a lot this weekend.”
The warm words didn’t fully defuse the tension.
Shortly before Air Force One touched down in France, European Council President Donald Tusk bluntly described the disagreements separating the European Union from the U.S. on several matters, including the escalating trade war with China.
“Trade wars will lead to recessions” and “trade wars among G-7 members will lead to an eroding of the already weakened trust among us,” Tusk said at a news conference.
He also criticized Trump for withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, which he said “hasn’t brought about any positive results.”
And he responded to another provocation from Trump, who stopped to speak to reporters late Friday as he departed the White House, promising to impose taxes on French wine “like you’ve never seen before” in response to a possible French tax aimed at large U.S. technology companies.
Macron on Saturday called for an end to the trade wars that he said are “taking hold everywhere” and urged world leaders here to focus on helping Brazil and other South American countries fight the fires currently burning in the Amazon, whose vast, carbon-absorbing rainforests help counteract global warming.
Conservationists have blamed the fires on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has encouraged loggers and farmers to clear the land. Bolsonaro complained that calls from Macron and other G-7 leaders to address the fires in Brazil’s rainforests reflect “a misplaced colonialist mindset.”
Trump tweeted prior to leaving Washington that he’d just spoken to Bolsonaro. “Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong, perhaps stronger than ever before,” Trump tweeted. “I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!”
In Bayonne, a town outside Biarritz, police fired tear gas, water cannons and dispersion grenades on a crowd of about 400 anti-capitalist demonstrators. Authorities detained 68 of them for allegedly throwing projectiles, concealing their faces or possessing objects that could be used as weapons.
Macron has already said that the G-7 leaders probably won’t issue their traditional formal communique, usually a quickly forgotten record of shared values and joint promises, when the summit wraps up on Monday, given Trump’s startling behavior last year.
Hours after last year’s G-7 in Quebec, Canada, had adjourned in June, Trump demanded that his signature be removed from the perfunctory communique because he felt the host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had disrespected him during a post-summit news conference.
This year, Trump picked a fight with Denmark, a longtime U.S. ally and member of NATO, before heading to the G-7. After the prime minister rejected his idea that the U.S. buy the Danish territory of Greenland as “absurd,” he abruptly canceled a planned state visit to Copenhagen and later called her remarks “nasty.”
He also rattled the nerves of G-7 counterparts by suggesting last week that Russia, which was expelled from the group in 2014 after it sent troops into Ukraine and seized Crimea, should be reinstated even though it continues the occupation.
“Under no condition can we agree on this logic,” Tusk said Saturday, adding that he’d prefer to see Ukraine invited to a G-7 summit rather than Russia.
Given Trump’s record as a global outlier on issues of trade, climate change and confronting Iran, and his propensity for derailing international confabs with threats and occasionally bellicose rhetoric, diplomats here hope to make any progress on the margins in sessions in the picturesque seaside town on France’s Basque coast.
Formal talks began Saturday evening with a welcome dinner at the Biarritz lighthouse overlooking the main beach. Trump, who prefers one-on-one interactions with leaders to large gatherings, is scheduled to hold private meetings with most of his counterparts on Sunday and early Monday.
In probably the most closely watched encounter, Trump will sit down for breakfast Sunday with new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is committed to taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union by the end of October, a fraught process that already has brought down two British governments. Trump avidly supports Brexit, but Johnson may not welcome Trump’s embrace, given the president’s unpopularity in London and much of Europe, although the two leaders have been in frequent contact by phone in recent days.
Johnson met this week with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a push to negotiate an exit deal from the 28-nation bloc before the deadline.
Trump is scheduled to hold a news conference on Monday before he returns to Washington.