The US president, whose power in Washington has been curtailed by the loss of the House of Representatives to the Democrats, will hold a one-on-one meeting with Emmanuel Macron, attend memorial ceremonies and meals with fellow leaders but will leave before the Paris Peace Forum, which Macron has organised as the focal point of the gathering.
The French president said the aim of the forum was to make sure the miscalculations of the world powers that led to the the 1914-18 war were avoided by more collective decision-making in the 21st century.
Vladimir Putin will be attending the war commemoration and the forum, but Trump has said he will not be meeting his Russian counterpart, apart from attending the same lunch, where scores of other world leaders will be present.
Trump has been under scrutiny for most of his presidency for the links between his election campaign and the Kremlin. The future of that investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, is now in doubt, after Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, but the Democratic gain of the House of Representatives will also clear the way for more congressional investigations of Trump’s conduct.
Trump declared in August that he would attend the first world war ceremonies, as a rebuff to Washington city authorities who he said had overpriced the cost of a military parade he had wanted to stage on 11 November.
It was unclear at the time whether he was aware of the extent of the events Macron had planned, referring to them in a tweet only as “the Paris parade, celebrating the end of the war”.
Trump said on Twitter: “When asked to give us a price for holding a great celebratory military parade, they wanted a number so ridiculously high that I cancelled it. I will instead … go to the Paris parade, celebrating the end of the war, on November 11.”
Trump has been uneasy at multilateral summits, preferring one-on-one meetings. His national security adviser, John Bolton, is also opposed to multilateral institutions, arguing the US should wield its power alone or with close allies.
Thomas Wright, the director of the Centre on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said: “It would would be odd for Trump and John Bolton to show up at a forum for global governance. Normally you would want the president of the US at an occasion like this, but Trump would really be the skunk at the picnic. His view of multilateral cooperation is that it damages sovereignty.”
Diplomats in Washington said Paris did not push hard for Trump to attend the peace summit, and that both administrations were content for the president to skip the meeting.
Trump will begin his weekend trip to France with the meeting with Macron, and a visit to the Belleau Wood battlefield and a cemetery for US war dead about 50 miles north-east of Paris. He will attend a dinner for visiting heads of state and government in the French capital on Saturday night.
On Sunday, Trump will take part in the main memorial event at the Arc de Triomphe and then eat lunch with fellow leaders before taking part in a US Veterans Day ceremony in a US cemetery in the Parisian suburb of Suresnes. He will then head home.
White House officials said the president’s tight schedule gave time for only one bilateral meeting, with Macron. The two leaders are expected to discuss Syria, Iran and Yemen as well as the future of transatlantic trade. One of the consequences of the congressional elections is to strengthen the hand of protectionists in both parties.
The overall impact of the midterm elections on US foreign policy is unclear, and much will depend on how far Trump will go to rid himself of members of the cabinet he sees as disloyal. In particular, many US allies are focused on whether the defence secretary, James Mattis, will survive a rumoured post-election purge.
Wright said: “Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust, and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.”