The French Election Is Looking Like 2016

We are approaching the end of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, a popular metric by which new commanders-in-chief are graded. The standard, begun during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure, are meant to measure the strength of a president’s popular mandate and political skill. Supposedly, a president will never have an easier time getting things accomplished than during his or her first 100 days in the Oval Office, when he or she tends to be more popular with the public and is seen as “fresh.”

How has Trump, who will hit his 100th day this week, fared?  The mainstream media has largely savaged the controversial former businessman, and even Fox News has declared his performance “mixed.” With North Korea refusing to back down to Trump’s veiled threats of potential military action and liberals in Congress ready to shut down the federal government over funding for a southern border wall, things look pretty bleak for the Donald. 

But he has received a glimmer of hope from Europe, where right-wing nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen has made it to the run-off election for the French presidency.

With Trump claiming a leadership role in the movement that ultimately culminated in Brexit, the colloquial term for Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, a Le Pen victory in the French presidential election would be evidence that many Europeans see things his way. It would be a major Trump victory over the liberal American mainstream media, which has largely sought to portray the former reality TV star as detested by most Europeans. Just as the mainstream media utterly failed to predict a Trump victory in November, could they be failing to acknowledge that many citizens of Western Europe could have Trumpish views?

The mainstream media is declaring Emmanuel Macron, a pro-EU “centrist” who was an economic minister in the incumbent socialist administration, the frontrunner in the run-off election. He received 23 percent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election, roughly tying the percent received by anti-EU nationalist Le Pen. Both candidates beat out a number of left-wing and right-wing minor-league contenders, raising questions about how effective each will be at picking up support from those they bested. In this regard, the situation in France is similar to the 2016 Republican presidential primaries here at home.

Similar to the U.S. presidential election, there seems to be a drive to keep the right-wing nationalist at bay: The assorted foes of Le Pen seem more united in their opposition, insisting that she is bad for France. However, the unified opposition to Trump, both during the Republican primaries and during the general election, did little to slow his momentum. This bodes well for Le Pen and means that she may be tougher to stop than anticipated.

The complex national defense situation in France may also benefit Le Pen, who is similar to Donald Trump in her goal of increasing military spending. Recent terrorist attacks, coupled with the always-grim situation in nearby Syria, may be hardening French attitudes toward diplomacy.  Macron, who advocates for working more closely with EU and NATO, may be pilloried by the right-wing as failing to keep France safe from terrorism. 

Indeed, the upcoming general election in France, which occurs on May 7, reads amazingly similar to its recent American counterpart, increasing doubts that Macron’s lead in the polls is as comfortable as the mainstream media insists. Just like between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the United States, Macron and Le Pen have sharply diverging views on almost all issues, especially border security and military strength. Trump loudly insisted that the U.S. had grown weaker in recent decades, sapped by foreign interventions and free trade, and needed to be tougher on illegal immigration and terrorism. In this regard, Marine Le Pen is a virtual mirror image. Both also favored stronger relations with Russia at the expense of traditional ties with Western Europe.

Speaking of Russia, a recent cyber attack on Macron’s campaign offices allegedly bears Russian “fingerprints,” perhaps signaling that the Kremlin will seek to manipulate the presidential election in France just as they supposedly did in the United States.

If Marine Le Pen pulls off an upset this May, it will be a bright feather in Trump’s cap and signal that the mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic are out of touch with rank-and-file voters. Trump’s supporters will be reinvigorated by the international validation and establishment Democrats, but not necessarily populist supporters of Bernie Sanders, will be dealt a painful blow. A Le Pen victory could, therefore, help set up a populist showdown between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in 2020, with the latter being bolstered in any bid to become the Democratic nominee.

A Macron victory, which is currently predicted, would show a French repudiation of nationalism and isolationism and reinvigorate American liberals to continue to resist. However, due to Europe’s more complex parliamentary systems, Macron will likely face strongly divided government unless he wins by large margins. If Macron wins but has to share power with a conservative prime minister, France could continue to languish without much-needed reforms, giving critics ammunition in 2020 to say that Le Pen and nationalism could have saved France from further erosion.

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