WASHINGTON—French President Emmanuel Macron arrived for the first state visit of Donald Trump’s presidency, in an test of whether personal chemistry between the two leaders can bridge a yawning policy divide.
The three-day trip is choreographed to showcase the bonhomie that has unexpectedly blossomed between the men over the past year. On Monday, the leaders and their wives planned to dine privately at Mount Vernon, the plantation house of George Washington, followed on Tuesday by talks and a glitzy state dinner at the White House.
“This visit is really important in our current context, with so many uncertainties, troubles and, at times, threats,” Mr. Macron said after landing in Washington.
Those moments of presidential bonding, however, are belied by a long list of differences on issues including climate change and the Iranian nuclear accord.
“The question for Macron is how he can use this personal connection with Trump to try to rebuild where you have certain policy disagreements,” said Jérémie Gallon, managing director of the American Chamber of Commerce in France.
The relationship has been a study in contrasts from the beginning. When the two first met at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization conference last year, they locked hands in a white-knuckled handshake before television cameras that pitted Mr. Trump, champion of an “America First” agenda, against Mr. Macron, the consummate globalist.
Over the past year, however, Mr. Macron has emerged as one of the few Western leaders willing to openly court Mr. Trump, inviting the president to join him at a Bastille Day military parade last year and dine inside the Eiffel Tower. The two regularly speak by phone, and when Mr. Trump needed allies to join the U.S. in conducting strikes over Syria, Mr. Macron wasted no time in answering the call.
“Our president doesn’t have a lot of other friends in the region right now, so he’s our guy in Europe,” a State Department official said.
Mr. Macron has framed the visit as an opportunity to guide Mr. Trump back into the fold of international multilateral cooperation and longstanding Western alliances.
The U.S. and France, Mr. Macron said Monday, are the “guarantors of contemporary multilateralism.”
Mr. Macron aims to use the trip to persuade Mr. Trump to keep the U.S. in the Iranian nuclear agreement after his self-imposed May 12 deadline to decide. Mr. Macron has also warned Mr. Trump that pulling American forces out of Syria would create a power vacuum in which Iran, Russia and terror groups would thrive.
On trade, Mr. Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on European steel and aluminum, a situation Mr. Macron has likened to negotiating “with a gun to our heads.”
At the White House on Monday, press secretary Sarah Sanders said the visit was intended to “celebrate the long enduring friendship” between the two nations. Beyond acknowledging that the two leaders would discuss “economic, diplomatic and global issues,” Ms. Sanders was reluctant to preview those talks.
Her only acknowledgment of the tensions between the two countries came when Ms. Sanders was asked about French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who on Friday compared Mr. Trump’s tariff package to “a kind of sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.”
When a reporter said that was strong language from Mr. Le Maire, Ms. Sanders smiled and said, “We can least agree on that.”
It is unclear whether Mr. Macron actually has the president’s ear. Mr. Trump announced plans to pull out of the Paris climate accord despite sustained lobbying from the French leader. Mr. Macron has made saving the climate deal a personal cause, unleashing an internet campaign to “Make Our Planet Great Again.”
Mr. Macron has managed, however, to persuade Mr. Trump to provide him with something he has withheld from other European leaders: a U.S. ambassador. Over their dinner at the Eiffel Tower in July, Mr. Macron lamented the lack of an ambassador at the time, a person familiar with the matter said. Mr. Trump returned to Washington and reassigned Jamie McCourt, who was slated to helm the embassy in Belgium, to France.