BIARRITZ, FRANCE – In a break in summit talks Sunday afternoon, cameras caught British Prime Minister Boris Johnson congratulating his French host on his handling of a tense dinner the night before.
“Well played,” Johnson told President Emmanuel Macron, breaking, momentarily, into French. Conversations between U.S. President Donald Trump and other Group of Seven leaders had grown heated around the issues of Iran and particularly Russia.
“You did very well last night,” Johnson went on. “My God, that was a difficult one.*
Macron’s response: “I’m not finished …”
In fact, the 41-year-old leader was just getting started. Yet his shock tactics to reinvent the tired old G7 format were beginning to wear on his colleagues, and that was even before they discovered what was headed their way (literally).
As lunch was wrapping up, reporters and advisers in Biarritz began tracking a plane on the flightradar app that was approaching the town’s closed airport. Iran’s green, white and red flag was emblazoned on the jet’s blue tailwing.
Onboard was Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Iran has divided the G7 ever since Trump pulled out of a nuclear deal with the country in 2018. European countries want to salvage the agreement but the U.S. president is holding firm. Zarif himself is under U.S. sanctions and had his movements heavily restricted during a recent visit to New York.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s team choreographed his movements around United Nations headquarters in New York in 2009 to avoid a chance run-in with the Iranians. Bringing Zarif to the same beach resort as Trump could easily be seen as a provocation for a U.S. administration that is very hostile to the Iranian regime.
“This is completely disrespectful to @realDonaldTrump and the other leaders at the G-7,” Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the U.N., said in a tweet. “Iran supports terrorism at every turn and continues to pursue ‘Death to America.’ Manipulative of Macron to do this and very insincere.”
In the corridors of the summit, aides reacted with a mixture of disdain and frustration.
It was a typical Macron stunt, a G7 official said.
The other Europeans at the summit thought they had a plan to tread softly with Trump, hoping to persuade him to ease the trade tensions that are threatening the global economy. Instead, there was a sense that Macron had overreached.
As French TV showed the Iranian motorcade heading toward the town center, Macron played it straight during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on African development and refused to take questions on any other subject.
Brigitte Macron, the president’s closest confidante through his dizzying rise to power, had taken Melania Trump and the other leaders’ partners to sample sangria. “Just an advice,” she warned them playfully, “don’t drink too much.”
But on a terrace outside the summit venue, Macron’s advisers were smoking one cigarette after another, looking out across the empty beach — cleared of tourists for security reasons. One said that he’d kicked his habit before he joined Macron’s team, but he had started again under the pressure of the French president’s high-wire diplomacy.
The question everyone was asking was: Who knew what, and when?
One person familiar with Macron’s plans said the idea started to take shape Friday after a fruitful meeting with Zarif in Paris. When Trump arrived in Biarritz on Saturday, Macron grabbed him for an impromptu lunch and pitched him with a plan for lowering the tensions over Iran — the Tehran government would be allowed to export more oil if it returned to compliance with the nuclear accord and joined formal talks.
But trouble was already brewing between the U.S. delegation and their hosts.
The U.S. had bristled at the focus on climate, and White House aides said they thought the French were deliberately manipulating the agenda to embarrass the president.
U.S. officials said the president knew nothing about the Zarif plans when they left Washington on Friday night. And they could not say whether he was given any warning when he was eating alone with Macron.
The Italians found out from French news wire AFP, while Merkel later said she was “well informed” but “just in time.” Merkel said that Macron had decided to take the leap after what both Trump and Johnson called a “lively” discussion at the Lighthouse gala dinner.
Those exchanges over more than three hours were the turning point. It was when Macron seemed to have thought he had secured an agreement to take the initiative on Iran on behalf of the entire club.
But Sunday morning saw more friction with Trump. Macron told reporters he had the backing of the G7 to deliver a joint message to Iran. Trump said, “We’ll do our own outreach.”
Whatever the substance of the Saturday night agreement, no one looked like they were expecting Macron to move so fast, or so far. French officials insisted that all the other participants had been informed. But they refused to say when — the warning came as the plane was about to land, a separate G7 official said.
By Sunday afternoon, Zarif was installed in the mayor of Biarritz’s office for three hours of meetings — including a brief greeting with Macron himself.
Trump retreated to his room in the Hotel du Palais, just 500 meters away and did not re-emerge until Zarif had left. You could almost pretend that the past six hours had never happened.
By the time Zarif was wheels up, Trump still hadn’t tweeted a single thing about his visit and was heading out to enjoy another dinner with the rest of the leaders.