The results of the French Presidential elections are in, and the results are somewhat some what uprising. In this first stage of the electoral process, since no candidate pulled in 50% of votes, under the French system the eleven candidates vying to be the French President have been whittled down to two – Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front Party, and Emmanuel Macron. With 100% of the votes counted, Macron, a centrist independent, leads with 23.8% of the vote followed by Le Pen with 21.5%.
The third place finisher, François Fillon of the center-right Republican Party with 19.9% of the vote has already conceded and thrown his support behind Macron. With 19.6% of the vote far left Socialist Party candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon also did not make it into one of the top two spots. Macron and Le Penn will face each other in two weeks (May 7th) in the second round of the election.
This election can be seen as a repudiation of the traditionally two strongest parties in France – the Republican and Socialist Parties. Fillon, the Republican candidate, served as Prime Minister of France from 2007 to 2012. He considered the early favorite until the French press revealed that he might face embezzlement charges. Fillon allegedly paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for parliamentary work she did not perform. Socialist candidate, Melenchon, was evidently hurt by his connection to current President François Hollande, another Socialist who is very unpopular among the French people.
First place winner, Macron, is former investment banker who served in the current Socialist government as its Economics Minister, but he has not been a member of the Socialist Party since 2009. He ran without party identification as a centrist candidate who favors France remaining in a member of the European Union and NATO. He believes that France has unfairly targeted Muslims and has stated, “We have a duty to let everybody practice their religion with dignity.” He wants to lower his nation’s corporate tax rate, one the highest in the world, and favors increasing military spending and intervention in Syria. He is a centralist who favors an open French economy that eradicates inequality while he remains pro-business. Politically, his policies are most similar to those of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, despite the obvious physical differences, Marine Le Pen could be Trump’s French clone.
Like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen pretends to be populist who preys on people who fear losing their national identity to immigration, are frightened by terrorism, and are weary after long periods of unemployment. Unlike Trump’s Republican Party, which used to proudly proclaim that it was the party on Lincoln, Le Pen has put a great deal of efforts into cleaning up the image of her National Front Party whose leadership she inherited from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The elder Le Pen, who founded his far right wing party based on a loose coalition of former Nazi collaborators and disgruntled military veterans united by xenophobia, was expelled from the NFP by his daughter as she attempted bring the party into the mainstream. What the American Republican Party and the French United Front most have in common is that both have been taken over taken over by fake populists bent on attaining personal power by appealing to newly enhanced nationalistic feelings.
Marine Le Pen statements, would sound very familiar to American voters grown used to Trump’s many rallies. Her speeches are filled with examples of immigrants committing crimes, Muslims plotting attacks, and other Europeans stealing French jobs. She has “declared war” on globalization, presenting herself as a protector of workers and farmers. Her party’s platform echo’s Trump’s law and order theme, calling for hiring more police and building jails for 40 thousand additional prisoners. She paints a very bleak picture of France, a prosperous country with world’s 6th largest economy, as severely weakened and in need of total upheaval. Le Pen claims that “ruin is just around the corner” and calls her country a “besieged wreck”. Does that sound somewhat familiar? It should.
Le Pen essentially echoes in French terms Trump’s “America first” theme, but of course she is all about putting Frenchmen first and she vows “to make France more French”. She appeals to French nationalism claiming that that French sovereignty is threatened its membership in NATO and European Common Market. She promised to hold a referendum within six months on EU membership and has pledged to pull France out of NATO. She has also promised to secure the country’s borders and deny government benefits, such as a free education, to undocumented immigrants. And, I forgot to mention, Le Pen praises Trump on a regular basis and uses his victory as proof that she can win her country’s Presidential election.
Like Trump, Le Pen has put the issue of immigration front and center in her campaign. She has promised she will declare a moratorium on immigration as her first act in office. “Just watch the interlopers from all over the world come and install themselves in our home. They want to transform France into a giant squat, but it’s up to the owner to decide who can come in.” She has also claimed that her country’s traditions and character are being threatened. “Will we be able to live much longer as French people in France, while entire neighborhoods are being transformed?” Think of Trump’s speeches on the evils of immigration, just spoken in a more direct and forceful manner. She has also pledged to seriously consider a Trump style Muslim ban after she takes office.
Like Trump, some of Le Pen proposed anti-foreigner policies would run into legal problems if the tried to enact them. For instance, her intention to end free education for the children of undocumented immigrants runs counter to the French constitution and French law. According to a respected French legal authority, “She is upholding a policy that not only is thought by constitutional experts to be unconstitutional, but has been judged by the law to be unlawful.”
Politics makes for strange bedfellows. Le Pen, like Trump before her, expects some of her support to come from the far left, which of course is strange because both she and Trump are representatives of parties on the right of the political spectrum. After the primaries Trump seem to think his campaign would appeal to Bernie Sanders’ supporters. While most of Le Pen’s vanquished rivals have already come out in support of Emmanuel Macron, far left Socialist Party candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, has refused to endorse Macron. This is probably because, while Socialists may dislike Le Pen, they hold Macron in equal or greater contempt. They, like Sanders supporters, are not tempted to support candidates who they believe is an advocate of big business.
Le Pen even has her own “basket of deplorables”. As one would expect from a party with the National Front’s dubious origins, its ranks are still filled with people with racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic views who are not opposed to violence in support of their cause. Recently at a Le Pen rally when she condemned her opponents in no uncertain terms, men in the stands shouted out their desire to cut off certain private parts of her rivals’ anatomies. One would be ill advised to be a protestor at one of those gatherings. Think of Trumps pre-election rallies, except perhaps with more coarseness thrown into the mix.
In addition, no French clone of Trump would be complete without a stated admiration of Vladimir Putin along with a promise to establish closer relations with Russia while drawing away from the rest of Europe. In an interview with Russian newspaper in 2011 Le Pen was quoted as saying she admired Putin and that the financial crisis in Europe presented France with “an opportunity to turn our back to the US and turn towards Russia”. Putin praises Le Pen as well, and why would he not? Her intention to withdraw France from membership in NATO and the European Union dovetails nicely with his plans to expand Russian influence in Eastern Europe.
The National Front has long been a cheerleader of Russia’s illegal adventures in Eastern Europe. While leaders around the world, with the notable exception of Trump, condemned Russians incursions in the Ukraine, Le Pen herself stated recently Russia’s annexation of Crimea was “not illegal” and that “the region was never Ukrainian”.
Le Pen and her National Front Party has profited handsomely from her close relationships with Putin and his business friends. She has made numerous trips to Russia in the last few years, usually attempting to keep the trips secret. She has met with Russians oligarchs on each of those trips to try to secure loans for her party’s campaign war chest. She met with Putin March 24th of this year during a high visibility event arranged to show his support for her. She also met with him secretly in 2014 and 2015.
Her trips to Russia were productive. In April of 2014 she secured a loan of 2 million Euros for the NFP campaign fund, in September of 2014 a loan of 9 million Euros, and in June of 2016 a loan of 3 million Euros – all from various Russian banks run by oligarchs with close ties to Putin. (The current exchange rate is $1.08 per Euro, so it is easy to understand the sizes of the loans.) According to the French publication, Le Canard Enchaine, there are believable reports that the NFP earlier was attempting to borrow an addition 28.7 Euros from the Russian banks to finance Le Pen’s Presidential bid.
And what Trump-like election would be complete without the Russians attempting to penetrate the democratic process with the aim of assisting their favorite candidate and destroying the opposition. An organization calling itself Le Pawn has been observed attempting to hack into servers belonging to Emmanuel Macron’s campaign, Le Pen’s opponent in the run off election. Cyber experts claim that Le Pawn’s electronic finger prints are the same as that of Cozy Bear, a group of hackers known to be working for the FSB, the Russian successor of the KGB. This was one of two Russian intelligence groups involved in the DNC hacking. Hopefully Macron has told all of his campaign personal long ago to put nothing in emails that they wouldn’t want to see published on the front page of Le Monde.
Now that Marine has managed to make her way into the run-off election, it opens the possibility of yet another political upset in a major NATO member by a bombastic right wing populist spouting nationalistic rhetoric. However, this is where the fates of the Le Pen and Trump campaigns diverge. Trump won the American Presidential election with 46.1% of the vote to Hillary Clintons’ 48.2% with three million votes less than his opponent. In French election system that is impossible. There are only two candidates on the final ballot; there are no minor candidates who might siphon off tiny percentages of the vote. It is head to head; by definition, one candidate or the other must get over 50% of the vote to score a victory.
Le Pen is handicapped by a long history of National Front candidates who have made it into the run-offs of regional and national elections. Invariably they have been unable to increase substantially the relatively small percentage of votes they received in the first round, which is sure formula for defeat in the second round of elections. A good example of this phenomenon was the candidacy of Marine’s father in the 2002 French Presidential election process. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front candidate, shocked his country by taking second place with 16.9% of the votes along with the opportunity to incumbent President Jacques Chirac in the second round. However, in that second election Le Pen was trounced by Chirac who laid claim to 82.2% of the vote to Le Pen’s 17.7%.
Marine Le Pen still claims she can win, but recent polls indicate she is likely to get only about 30% of the vote in the second round of elections. Unlike Hilary Clinton, Le Pen’s opponent in that election has positioned himself as a political outsider. He is combating her populism by leading a revolt by the middle. Emmanuel Macron warns his fellow Frenchman against walling themselves off like the British and the Americans. “I am thinking about our British friends who chose to leave Europe… I am thinking about the withdrawal operated for several years by our American friends who may be deciding to abandon their historic mission, which is, by our side, to ensure peace around the globe.” With most of his first round rivals joining his ranks, Macron is now a heavy favorite to win the French Presidency less than two weeks from now.
If Macron does win, he can perhaps stem the tide of nationalist populism, heralded by the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory, which has been threatening to sweep over Europe. Far right nationalist parties with populist messages – the Dutch Freedom Party, the Austria’s Freedom Party, Belgium’s Flemish Interest, Alternative for Germany, and the Italian Northern League – have all been gaining popularity lately. Their prospects would be dimmed by crushing National Front defeat.