Trump's populism and Macron's haughty liberalism are, in substance, not significantly different

In the film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman, “We’ll always have Paris.” Today is Bastille Day, when President Emmanuel Macron meets with President Donald Trump in the capital. Will they part to say the same?

In a rally broadside earlier this year, Trump discussed terrorism and immigration in Europe, singling out Paris as a terrorist target by quoting a friend “Jim,” who Trump explained now refuses to visit the city because “Paris is no longer Paris.”

Terrorism and climate change will be top of Macron’s agenda. He will be hoping to change Trump’s view on climate change after Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Change agreement. However, the main area of discussion will no doubt be creating alignment on Islam and terrorism.

Where Trump has alienated Muslims with bans and insults tempered with a high-profile visit to the Gulf, Macron has sought to build bridges with Muslims in France. In a Ramadan iftar meal organised by the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM), Macron gave his message to Muslim compatriots. Significantly, Macron is the first President of the Republic for a decade to address such a gathering, increasing the symbolism of the night.

Macron said the State will be “at the side” of the CFCM as he set out his agenda to fight radical Islam. He acknowledged the “terrible attacks which have put the French people to the test” and the role Muslims themselves need to play to resolve the current troubles. He made his objective clear enough: to “fight together against fanaticism and its spread,” defeat “the ideology of Daesh,” and to target Muslims who want to make mosques “places of preaching calling for hatred, even violence.”

Macron took as his primary target Muslim groups who organise “segregation” from the Republic, and promised to fight on two fronts. The first fight is against fanaticism. He said “It is up to you to fight on the theological and religious grounds, capturing the history of your religion, the negation of fifteen centuries of interpretation work carried out by your scholars…. The struggle of thought and faith must be continued on the ground, especially among young people who are reluctant to cross the door of your mosques.”

The second fight is the training of imams. He reiterated his campaign message that such training “on French soil should be adapted to the values of the Republic.” He explained, “Universities are ready to work in this direction and they will have the support of the State.” Macron stressed the need for French universities to return to “a better knowledge of Islam and of its diversity.” This fight will help prevent a “withdrawal into fantasised identities.”

Attacking the desire by many Muslims for “a withdrawal of identity,” Macron stressed the need to tackle those who want to “escape the laws of the Republic.” America may or may not want bans and walls, but Macron believes the French people will not argue that Islam is incompatible with the Republic, but he added: “It’s up to you to prove it.”

While Macron earned praise for his speech, Trump was attacked from many quarters for cancelling the annual White House iftar dinner, and for issuing a Ramadan statement that focused too much on terrorism. He stressed a “shared obligation to reject violence, to pursue peace, and to give to those in need who are suffering from poverty or conflict.” His statement reiterated what he said in Riyadh, “America will always stand with our partners against terrorism and the ideology that fuels it,” adding the need to “ensure that future generations will be free of this scourge and able to worship and commune in peace.”

Populism is largely about the triumph of style over substance. Macron’s style is one of haughty liberalism, the usual mish-mash of political correctness and a pluralist request that we all play nicely, in contrast to Trump’s arrogance, directness and intemperate outbursts. However, in substance Macron’s message is not significantly different from Trump. Both presidents used Ramadan to send strong messages about terrorism. Both presidents take a very secular view of their nation and the world. Macron and Trump will probably behind closed doors, out of the limelight and Twitter, have much to share and agree upon. We may even hear Trump tell Macron, “Here’s looking at you kid.”