Does Donald Trump’s vic­tory presage a win for Ma­rine Le Pen?

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL -

What might be the knockon ef­fect in Europe of Donald Trump’s vic­tory? The next big democ­racy to vote af­ter Amer­ica is France, which holds its pres­i­den­tial elec­tion next spring. Could Ma­rine Le Pen, leader of the pop­ulist Na­tional Front (FN), be elected pres­i­dent?

Before the Amer­i­can re­sult, the ques­tion seemed ab­surd. Polls have sug­gested for months that she would do well enough to se­cure one of the two sec­ond-round places at vot­ing next April. This in it­self would be a vic­tory of sorts, re­peat­ing the achieve­ment of her fa­ther, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002. But no polls have in­di­cated that she could beat the cen­tre-right can­di­date likely to face her.

Now, the un­think­able has be­come con­ceiv­able. There was no dis­guis­ing the de­light in Paris at the FN head­quar­ters. A ju­bi­lant Ms Le Pen, who had ar­gued that a Trump vic­tory would be good for France, con­grat­u­lated the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent-elect and praised the “free” Amer­i­can peo­ple. “It’s not the end of the world,” she de­clared, “but the end of a world.” Her lieu­tenant and party strate­gist, Flo­rian Philip­pot, summed up the mood at the FN: “Their world is col­laps­ing; ours is be­ing built.” Even Mr Le Pen, who has fallen out with his daugh­ter, tweeted: “To­day the United States, to­mor­row France!” Cer­tainly, the par­al­lels be­tween Ms Le Pen and Mr Trump are strik­ing. Both trade on sim­pli­fied truths and build pol­i­tics on re­jec­tion and nos­tal­gia. They have both rein­vented them­selves as anti­estab­lish­ment out­siders, who stand up for peo­ple for­got­ten by the sys­tem and scorned by the elite. They speak to the same white work­ing-class rage, use sim­i­lar vo­cab­u­lary, and thrive each time the es­tab­lish­ment sneers at them. Draw­ing her own per­sonal strength from the old in­dus­trial and min­ing towns of north­ern France, which once voted Com­mu­nist, Ms Le Pen is now the favourite politi­cian among French work­ing-class vot­ers.

Their pol­icy in­stincts are sim­i­lar too. Mr Trump and Ms Le Pen are both pro­tec­tion­ists and na­tion­al­ists, sup­port­ive of Brexit and sym­pa­thetic to Rus­sia. The FN has bor­rowed money from a Rus­sian bank with links to the Krem­lin, and Ms Le Pen has long ad­mired Vladimir Putin. Pro-Euro­peans in Paris are par­tic­u­larly concerned at the prospect of an al­liance be­tween Mr Trump, Mr Putin and Ms Le Pen, bent on di­vid­ing the Euro­pean Union and un­der­min­ing the old or­der. Af­ter the Brexit vote, the FN leader promised a “Frexit” ref­er­en­dum in France too. One dif­fer­ence is rhetor­i­cal ex­cess. Ms Le Pen is in some ways a Trump lite. She may share many of his re­flexes, but wraps them up in more cau­tious lan­guage. She has never, for in­stance, called for all Mus­lims to be banned from France, but rather for an end to an “un­con­trolled wave” of im­mi­gra­tion. She does not prom­ise to build walls, but to con­trol bor­ders. The prob­lem, she says, is not Is­lam but what she calls the “Is­lam­i­fi­ca­tion” of France.

In France, where Ms Le Pen is try­ing to trans­form a one-time pariah move­ment with for­mer neo-Nazi links into a cred­i­ble po­lit­i­cal force ready to gov­ern, such nu­ances re­main an as­set. Ms Le Pen’s pop­ulism has fewer rough edges than Mr Trump’s, and is all the more elec­torally pow­er­ful for it. Even in France’s two-round sys­tem, which makes it dif­fi­cult for in­sur­gent par­ties, her party has shown that it can win a ma­jor­ity of votes lo­cally. The FN now governs a dozen town halls across France, mostly in the north and the MedTo win the two-round pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, how­ever, Ms Le Pen would have to break a glass ceil­ing. Em­pir­i­cally, this has capped her sup­port, both in opin­ion polls and at the bal­lot box, at just over 40 per­cent. A ma­jor­ity of French vot­ers on the left and cen­tre-right, less wed­ded to their po­lit­i­cal fam­ily than they are al­ler­gic to the FN, tend to gang up to vote against it in a run-off, in what is known as a front répub­li­cain. They did just this at re­gional elec­tions in De­cem­ber 2015, when Ms Le Pen won 44 per­cent, but failed to se­cure the pres­i­dency of north­ern France.

All polls sug­gest to­day that Ms Le Pen would sim­i­larly face—and lose—a pres­i­den­tial run-off next year against the Repub­li­can can­di­date, who will be picked at that party’s pri­mary later this month. She would do bet­ter in a con­test with Ni­co­las Sarkozy, a fre­netic for­mer pres­i­dent, against whom polls sug­gest she would win 42 per­cent of the vote, than she would if she faced Alain Juppé, a pro­fes­so­rial for­mer prime min­is­ter, against whom she would win 32 per­cent. In­deed, Mr Juppé has specif­i­cally cam­paigned for left-wing vot­ers dis­ap­pointed with François Hol­lande’s So­cial­ist pres­i­dency to turn out at the Repub­li­can pri­mary and vote for him, a more palat­able op­tion for them than Ms Le Pen.

All of which as­sumes, how­ever, that the polls are a rea­son­able guide to vot­ing in­ten­tions. Re­cent Amer­i­can and Bri­tish ex­pe­ri­ence now cau­tion against this. The sense of pos­si­bil­ity that a vic­to­ri­ous Mr Trump of­fers Ms Le Pen will give her cam­paign fresh mo­men­tum, and per­haps em­bolden her silent sup­port­ers. The more the me­dia and po­lit­i­cal classes lament the Amer­i­can re­sult, the more she will play on the ar­ro­gance and en­ti­tle­ment of the out-of-touch Paris elite. And, whether Mr Juppé or Mr Sarkozy runs for pres­i­dent, her anti-es­tab­lish­ment de­nun­ci­a­tion of the un­chang­ing cast of po­lit­i­cal old-timers will ring all too true. A Le Pen vic­tory may still be im­prob­a­ble. But it would be a grave mis­take to rule it out.

Ma­rine Le Pen, leader of the pop­ulist Na­tional Front in France.

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