By Jenna Johnson and and James McAuley,
PARIS — President Trump was not expected to attend France’s Bastille Day, which this year will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I.
But then he learned there would be a military parade.
French President Emmanuel Macron told Trump in a June 27 phone call about the event, which this year will feature U.S. and French troops marching through the historic streets near the Arc de Triomphe, fighter jets cutting through the skies above, and flags, horses and military equipment on display — the sort of spectacle that Trump wanted to stage at his own inauguration in January.
Trump told Macron he would be there, according to a White House official, and French and U.S. officials rushed to schedule a last-minute trip that will last about 27 hours and include dinner at an opulent restaurant in the Eiffel Tower and a visit to Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb.
Trump and Macron are political outsiders in the early months of their presidencies, and their relationship has been defined by public confrontations. Trump — who has repeatedly described Paris as dangerous and crime-ridden — clearly favored Macron’s rival in the French election this spring, and Macron’s win seemed to cool the nationalist movement sweeping the globe.
When the two first met in May in Brussels, Macron aggressively shook Trump’s hand and would not let go, later telling a French newspaper that “it was a moment of truth” and that “we must show that we will not make small concessions, even symbolic ones.” Trump hit back in early June when he announced that the United States would pull out of the Paris climate agreement because he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Macron then defiantly launched a “Make the Planet Great Again” effort.
Macron’s jabs at Trump have been widely applauded in France, where a Pew Research Center poll recently found that only 14 percent of people say they have confidence in Trump.
But administration officials from both countries insist this visit will be a friendly one that is focused on the long relationship between the two nations — especially on the battlefield. In their private discussions, the two leaders are expected to focus heavily on the conflict in Syria and weakening the Islamic State terrorist group.
“It’s the 100th anniversary of the American entry into World War I — it’s a beautiful symbol,” François Heisbourg, a former French national security adviser under presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, said in an interview. “It’s also a reminder to Trump and to those in France that there’s a century of transatlantic history here, and that the not-so-subliminal history is quite strong.”
A senior Trump administration official who briefed reporters on the trip Tuesday echoed that sentiment, commending France for being “far and away one of the largest and strongest military members” in the NATO alliance.
“The fact that we participated in such a major way in World War I, side by side with the French, is a clear parallel to what we’re doing today,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We still live in a dangerous world. We still live in a world that has many, many threats.”
Trump’s whirlwind tour of Paris comes just days after he returned from a trip to Poland and Germany for the Group of 20 summit. The president and his large entourage are scheduled to arrive Thursday morning. Trump will first visit the U.S. Embassy to meet with diplomats, military members participating in Friday’s parade and military leaders based in Europe.
In the afternoon, Macron and Trump will tour the Invalides, a complex that includes a military history museum and a church containing the tombs of Napoleon and other figures from French history.
Macron, 39, is France’s youngest leader since Napoleon, and some comparisons have been made between the two because of Macron’s quiet and quick consolidation of power and his penchant for displays of grandeur, such as his recent 90-minute address to both houses of Parliament in the opulent Palace of Versailles.
Late in the day, the two will meet privately with their senior advisers for about an hour, deliver public remarks and take questions from reporters — something that both presidents have largely avoided. In the evening, Trump, Macron and their wives will dine at Le Jules Verne, a one-Michelin-star-rated restaurant perched high in the Eiffel Tower where the six-course tasting menu costs 230 euros, or $262, per person.
The restaurant is named for the famous 19th century French author who wrote “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Its website proclaims: “One does not come to the Jules Verne by chance. It is a destination that transmits a dream.”
Friday morning will bring the military parade along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees that first caught Trump’s attention. This year’s parade will feature 1,200 people, 211 vehicles, 341 horseback riders and 63 aircraft — and a competing protest march titled “Don’t Let Your Guard Down Against Trump,” which will start from the Place de Clichy, nearly two miles away from where Trump will be seated.
Macron has been sharply criticized across the political spectrum for honoring Trump with this visit. Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, editorialized that the invitation revealed that Macron “was an attentive student of Machiavelli” and that he “stole from the U.S. president the monopoly on unpredictability.”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the erstwhile presidential candidate and leader of the far-left “France Unbowed” party in Parliament, said in an interview with Europe 1 radio that Trump is not welcome.
“The holiday of July 14th is that of the freedom of the French,” Mélenchon said. “Mr. Trump represents NATO and the enslavement of our nation to an international coalition in which it plays no role.”
Leila Charef, co-director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, called Trump’s visit is “a shocking symbol,” especially following Macron’s recent push to enshrine certain elements of France’s anti-terrorism “state of emergency” regimen into normal French law. The “state of emergency” went into place after the November 2015 terrorist attacks that killed 130 in and near Paris. The measures were intended to temporarily expand French authorities’ ability to investigate terrorism plots, but they have led to thousands of warrantless arrests and “weigh on the way Muslims are treated and perceived in France,” Charef said.
“It would be useful for good, anti-discrimination practices to circulate — not bad speeches,” she said.
Despite the angst among some about Trump’s visit, it was largely being overshadowed on the streets of Paris by Bastille Day, which marks the storming of the royal fortress during the French Revolution in 1789. By Wednesday afternoon, barricades had been installed along the parade route, and preparations were underway for a massive fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower. There were few signs of Trump’s impending arrival, and many Parisians seemed more interested in discussing their holiday plans than U.S. politics.
Paris law enforcement officials had planned for heightened security on Bastille Day after a terrorist last year drove a truck through a crowd that had just watched a fireworks display in the seaside city of Nice in southern France, killing 86.
After the parade, Macron plans to travel to Nice to remember those who were killed. Trump was not invited to come along, according to the White House, although he probably will mention the attack in his public remarks. Trump will return to the United States on Friday afternoon, arriving home in time for the start of the weekend.
“Anytime that you can go visit a couple like the Macrons in the City of Light, it’s pretty tremendous,” the senior administration official told reporters Tuesday. “On this particular day, however, it’s got added significance. So I think the president is excited and very much looking forward to that.”