Emmanuel Macron said that, while Isis fighters from Europe are “a tiny minority of the overall problem”, the majority of those detained in Syria are not “mostly from Europe” as Mr Trump has previously claimed.
The contentious exchange reflected an apparent rift between the French and US presidents over how to deal with the nearly 10,000 prisoners held in Syria following Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the region.
Mr Trump, who has suggested that Isis fighters are Europe’s problem to deal with, said during the televised meeting: “We have a tremendous amount of captured fighters, Isis fighters over in Syria, and they’re all under lock and key, but many are from France, many are from Germany, the UK.”
“They’re mostly from Europe”, he added, before quipping to Mr Macron: “Would you like some nice Isis fighters? I could give them to you. You could take every one you want.”
The joke caused Mr Macron to respond with a straight face, saying “Let’s be serious” before adding: “The very last numbers of fighters on the ground are the fighters coming from Syria, from Iraq.”
“It is true that you have foreign fighters coming from Europe, but this is a tiny minority of the overall problem we have”, Mr Macron said. “But we need to finish war against Isis and don’t make any mistakes. The number one problem are not the foreign fighters. This is the Isis fighters in the regiment and you have more and more of these fighters due to the situation today.”
Mr Trump then said “that was one of the greatest non-answers I’ve ever heard”, as he appeared visibly agitated by the French president’s correction and impatient tone.
While most of Europe has largely declined to repatriate Islamic State fighters from their respective countries, France has taken back at least 11 nationals from Turkey who were suspected of joining the terror organisation.
Top Turkish officials said there were nearly 1,200 foreign Isis fighters held in prisons across the region, and that Ankara would begin deporting them to their respective countries regardless of their circumstances.
A state run news agency in Turkey last month reported that at least two detainees had been deported, including an American and a German, and said another 23 European nationals would be deported “in the coming days”.
Mr Trump and Mr Macron have been steeped in controversy over their opposing visions for Nato ahead of this week’s summit, after the French president said US support for the global alliance could no longer be taken for granted. Mr Macron also said Nato was suffering from “brain death” following Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria after the US troop withdrawal.
The US president said the suggestion was “a very dangerous statement” and “very insulting”.
During their bilateral meeting, Mr Macron said: “My statement created some reactions … I do stand by it.”
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