Does Donald Trump’s Victory Presage a Win for Marine Le Pen?

Economist, Nov. 9, 2016

What might be the knock-on 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 anti-establishment 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 Mediterranean fringe.

To 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%. 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%, but failed to secure the presidency of northern France, after Socialists, improbably, campaigned for the centre-right candidate, Xavier Bertrand.

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% of the vote, than she would if she faced Alain Juppé, a professorial former prime minister, against whom she would win 32%. 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.

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