The moment will hit you if it hasn’t already: President Donald Trump. Président de la République française Marine Le Pen.
It can happen (t)here. Still not likely. But possible. Trump is the all-but-certain GOP nominee (as he says, “it’s over”). Le Pen looks set for a second-round, one-on-one contest.
The “establishment” – US Democrats and Republicans and France’s Socialists and Républicans – seems to be sleepwalking into a new political reality. French and American political reporting now takes the form of shared disbelief and obsessive poll gazing. The journalists console themselves, and us, with numbers to prove that Trump is not America and Le Pen is not France. Two-thirds of Americans think Trump is beyond the pale and a majority of French finds Le Pen agressive (71%) and raciste (60%).
Political reality could turn ever more surreal between now and November, now and April-May of next year’s French presidential elections. It’s double jeopardy if you are French and living in America, or an American in France. Not only the country you live in, but also the country you fly home to, could be radically transformed.
As the French thinker De Tocqueville pointed out, America is often a reliable “advance indicator” of what happens in France. French political analyst Nicolas Bouzou, back from a recent visit to the US, wrote in the daily Le Figaro that the “American nightmare campaign of 2016 will be reenacted in a French nightmare campaign of 2017.”
Marine Le Pen’s likely presence in the second, final round of the presidential election is equivalent to Trump winning the Republican nomination. The result, says Le Monde columnist Françoise Fressoz, is a radical simplification of French politics. “The political reality in France can now be summed up in one question. Who can stop Marine Le Pen?”
Comparisons between Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump have been popping up on both sides of the Atlantic generating headlines like, “Donald Trump is now America’s Marine Le Pen.” These political outsiders are setting a new populist agenda for the US and France, merging hostility to immigrants with the fear of terrorism.
In February, the American press made much of the Trump “endorsement” tweeted by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and the former leader of France’s National Front (FN) party, “If I were American, I would vote for Donald Trump….” It was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. with a quote from the right-wing news site Breitbart: “Trump has become the international leader of the populist revolt against the elites.”
Superficially, it’s not clear how they could be two heads of the same animal. Marine (the French often refer to her simply by her first name) is a lawyer and twice-divorced mother of three children. Trump is a billionaire egomaniac living in a world of casinos, Manhattan real estate and reality TV. But Trumpism and Lepénisme have a great deal in common. Their inexorable rise and rise is creating a transatlantic third dimension in politics where anguish and rage matter more than Left or Right.
Marine, like Trump, knows how to take it to the media. In 2014, at a press conference in the National Front headquarters, just west of Paris (organized by the Anglo-American Press Association), I encountered a woman exuding boundless, Trump-like self-belief.
Wearing a stylish grey suit and speaking in her husky ex-smoker’s voice, Marine laid out her surprisingly credible plan for power, including the 2017 presidency. She fielded questions for two hours and carried on afterwards in one-to-one interviews. She hammered home her “France-first” vision to halt immigration, eliminate free trade, and claw back monetary and territorial sovereignty. Marine, who doesn’t speak a word of English, regards “les Anglo-Saxons” as being on the side of the enemy, responsible for the curse of multiculturalism and, more generally, the creation of a globalized, implacable and unipolar world.
Her party was preparing to run in the European Parliament elections – somewhat ironically because she opposes its very existence. “I am only looking for one thing from the European Union, and that’s for it to explode,” she explained.
A couple of months later, in May, something did explode – the illusion that the far right was safely quarantined. For the first time in French history, a far-right party scored the most votes in a national election: 25% of the votes in the European Parliamentary race. It was just one unpopular election with a lot of abstentions but the damage was done. Ever since the National Front has crowned itself the “First Party of France.”
Time Magazine calls Marine “Europe’s leading right-winger” and put her on its list of 100 most influential people last year. Marine Le Pen, the magazine gushed, “…has spun gold from voter exasperation, mixing charm and ambition to rack up wins in European Parliament and local elections with an anti-Europe, anti-immigration campaign.”
So far, Marine vehemently rejects comparisons between herself and the Donald – “Je suis pas américaine! (I’m not an American).”
But many of their positions are ideological clones. Both advocate torture, mass deportation and religious discrimination. Neither of them believes that climate change is caused by human activity.
Trump and Le Pen are regularly accused of being fascists. One of Marine’s nicknames is la peste brune (a reference to the Plague and Nazi brown shirts). Desperate to get rid of the fascist label, she has actually kicked her anti-Semitic father out of the National Front party and is now making a pitch to Jewish voters. She sued a comedian for calling her a fascist bitch – but lost. As for Trump, Carl Bernstein thinks he is an American “neo-fascist” and people as diverse as Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Mexican president Enrique Pen and Anne Frank’s stepsister Eva Schloss agree. Bernstein says someone on cable news should finally ask Trump, “How are you different from the fascist message?” In a concession to his critics, and to prove that he’s not Mussolini (even if he quotes him), Trump has stopped asking his followers to raise their hands at his rallies.
Trump’s rise in American politics began with promises to deport 11 million undocumented people and build a “big, beautiful wall” along the US-Mexican border. He wants a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US.” Le Pen for her part compares the presence of Muslims in France to the Nazi occupation. She has created an elaborate narrative of white French falling victim to reverse discrimination while Trump suffers from an eternal case of Obama panic. America is no longer great, he dog whistles, because it has an African-American president.
It’s a no brainer that economic anxiety fuels much of the support for anti-establishment populists Trump and Le Pen. Both reach out to working-class white voters struggling in the globalized economy with promises to undo policies that screw them. Le Pen mashes up far-right nationalism with some distinctly leftwing economics (a protective state should control health, education, energy, banking). Trump challenges Republican orthodoxy by supporting entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. In the same breath, he calls for a wall on the border with Mexico and higher taxes for hedge fund managers.
The world Trump and Le Pen live in is not about the traditional split between Left and Right. It’s more like a world wrestling match between nationalism and “globalism.” The globalists are the ruling oligarchies in the US and France, represented by mainstream political parties that pursue the same policies under different names. For Le Pen, the globalists are also the Americans who have turned France into America’s “poodle,” dragging it into Afghanistan and Libya. Trump is an America-First isolationist. Both want to withdraw from NATO.
They also both admire Putin and see him as a potent ally in the struggle against the globalists. The National Front, in fact, has received financial backing from the Russian leader. Trump, presumably, will not need to hit up Putin only because he is rich.
When Trump gave his first campaign interview to the European media, also in February, he repeated verbatim what the National Front has been saying for decades. “France,” he told the right wing French weekly Valeurs Actuelles, is “not what it was, nor is Paris,” warning that immigration will lead to “revolutions” and “the end of Europe.”
I first heard about the end-of-Europe spiel from Marine’s father in 2001. I met Jean-Marie Le Pen in a Lebanese restaurant in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, at the invitation of the Foreign Press Association. When I arrived, France’s political pariah, notorious for anti-foreigner vitriol, was huddled in a back room with wide-eyed journalists from the earth’s four corners (China, Mexico, Japan, Lebanon, etc.).
In person, Jean-Marie is more bluster than menace. Like Trump, he never apologizes for saying something nasty, vicious or ugly. It’s just everyone else’s fault for misinterpreting him. Yes, he described the World War II gas chambers as a “detail of history” – it was just “one of many ways you died” in the war. He claims he’s not an anti-Semite, just ask his Jewish friends. Yes, he supports the use of torture “to save lives” but he never tortured anyone as a paratrooper in the Algerian war. He only asked questions – “specialists” inflicted the pain. At the end, he turned the conversation to dogs, Dobermans in particular.
It was almost as easy, back then, to underestimate Jean-Marie Le Pen, as it has been to downplay Trump until recently. Le Pen père was the poster boy for the assholery of far right politics. But the political family he founded is now one of Europe’s most influential, fuelled by the energy of his daughter Marine – he calls her the “second-stage of the rocket.” What we overlooked at the time was the potential for an outsider like Le Pen to channel the outrage of disaffected voters and challenge the establishment “duopoly” of conservatives and socialists.
Nine months later, Jean-Marie Le Pen would be one of two French choices for president. Leftwing voters played coy with the Socialist Party’s Lionel Jospin in round one, letting Le Pen slip into the runoff against conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac. A bit like San Franciscans talking about the Loma Prieta earthquake, French politicians and members of the chattering class still recall exactly where they were and what they were doing at 7pm on April 21, 2002, when the shock hit. Le Pen admitted to the Journal du Dimanche last week that he was, 14 years ago, scared shitless: “People were surprised I didn’t shout with joy. After all, we had won. I thought right away about the second round and asked myself anxiously ‘what happens if I’m elected president 15 days from now.’”
Overnight, France’s morally bankrupt president Chirac became the world’s most re-electable politician, cuddled by trade unionists, students, communists, ecologists and Trotskyites. The leftwing newspaper Libération called on the French to “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!” And they did – 82% in favor of Chirac. It was a wildly improbable denouement to France’s autumn of the patriarch. Instead of being held accountable by French voters, and booted out, a decrepit Chirac was gifted five more years of presidential immunity (he was convicted for corruption after leaving office).
Since 2002, France’s political establishment has maintained this electoral Maginot Line against the National Front, using tactical voting to keep the party out of power. Its success is reflected in the fact that the FN holds only two out of 577 National Assembly seats. Each time the National Front wins in the first round of an election, the second round becomes a referendum on the FN with socialists and conservatives ganging up to defeat it. That’s why, even though the FN won the first round in six of the country’s 13 regional elections last year, it failed to win the second round in a single one.
This phenomenon of cross-party clothespin voting (while holding your nose) can make France’s presidential elections as outlandish and unpredictable a spectacle as Trump’s run for the White House. It also lends credibility to Marine’s claim there is no real difference between the mainstream French parties. Right now, France’s 2017 presidential election looks like a remake of 2010, with the same trio of politicians (Marine against former president Nicolas Sarkozy and incumbent president Francois Hollande). Most polls predict a first-place finish for her in the opening round. Sarkozy’s conservative party, Les Républicans, is in shambles in the wake of scandals over illegal campaign contributions. That might leave the narrowest aperture for Hollande to squeeze into the second round. If Hollande makes it to the runoff, he can, Chirac-style, harvest a bonanza of nose holding, anti-Le Pen voters. The most unpopular president in French history (with an approval rating of 17%) might actually be re-elected.
Could the Donald be crushed in November by a wave of nauseous #NeverTrump voters rallying in a French-style “Clothespin Campaign”? Adam Gopnik makes the case for it a New Yorker column – “A French History Lesson For Anti-Trump Republicans.”
But even if he loses, Trump is not going to just fade away. He will continue to have a huge political impact whether or not he ever holds public office.
As for Marine Le Pen, a second-round place in France’s presidential election would be a major victory in a war she’s convinced she’ll win. She will continue to expand and rebrand the National Front. And the “First Party of France” will field candidates every step of the way at every level of elective office.
If she doesn’t win in 2017, Marine will be back to win in 2022 and again in 2027.