Donald Trump’s election to the White House set a wild American cat among a flock of flapping European pigeons.
Horrified EU leaders gritted their teeth as they tempered messages of congratulation with reminders about “values”. Rifts were exposed amid attempts to find a common response. There are fears that Trump’s triumph can only sharpen populist claws in Europe.
In contrast to the cautious political mainstream, anti-establishment figures pounced on the US result with glee.
Félicitations au nouveau président des Etats-Unis Donald Trump et au peuple américain, libre ! MLP— Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) November 9, 2016
The French Front National (FN) leader was among the first to congratulate the US presidential winner and the “free” American people, quickly adding that the result was “good news” for France.
Marine Le Pen has long been touted to reach the run-off of next spring’s presidential election, especially in the wake of several terror attacks carried out on French soil in the name of political Islam. The question increasingly being asked now is whether she can actually win.
Victory for a contender from one of the European Union’s linchpin countries, who wants to see the break-up of the EU, could be a mortal blow to the bloc.
The Front National will unveil its manifesto for the 2017 presidential election in February. Its programme from 2012 is still on the party’s website. Le Pen’s rhetoric on familiar themes is arguably every bit as important in terms of attracting voters as the policy details themselves.
Her record on “un-demonising” the far-right party previously led by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen is well documented. But it’s also pointed out that the FN is not one homogenous block. “There are two Front Nationals: one in the north of France which is anti-religious, very socialist, quite leftist; and one in the south, which accepts the euro, which is – economically speaking – liberal, and Catholic. The only thing which helps them to stick together is the prospect of winning one day,” writer and economist Alain Minc told BBC radio.
Accordingly, the FN agenda has echoes of both political right and left.
TRUMP: MARINE LE PEN SE SENT POUSSER DES AILES. Le dessin du Monde de ce jeudi 10 novembre. pic.twitter.com/BWhs6lLR6d— PLANTU (@plantu) November 10, 2016
The people v the elite
This is the new rallying cry of the FN leader – all the more so now the Trump tempest has blown in from the Atlantic, whipping up Brexit’s breeze. In a key speech at Fréjus in the south of France in September, Marine Le Pen spoke repeatedly of “the people”: portraying essentially a French nation defenceless in the face of economic liberalism and multiculturalism imposed from abroad – especially the EU.
Donald Trump’s election was “really the victory of the people against the elite,” Le Pen told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show last weekend. “I hope that in France too, the people can upend the table around which the elite are dividing up what should go to the French people”.
The FN too toxic for UKIP
If Le Pen’s language sounds reminiscent of supporters of Brexit, Britain’s own anti-establishment, anti-EU party has long distanced itself from the Front National. Although the French leader argues there is “not a hair’s breadth” between the two parties, UKIP criticises the FN’s stance on immigration.
“We are not going to welcome any more people, stop, we are full up!” Marine Le Pen said.
UKIP leadership contender Suzanne Evans said she was “appalled”. “That is so far away from UKIP policy, it’s unimaginable,” she told ITV, explaining that her party wanted to “welcome” migrants under a points-based system.
The FN’s last election manifesto contained proposals to cut legal immigration to 10,000 “entries” a year, a twentieth of its then total; to deport all illegal immigrants and ban protests supporting them; to tighten rules on nationality and punish racism more harshly if it was “anti-French”. Economic agreements with North African countries would be renegotiated with a view to “stopping their migratory flow” to France.
AndrewMarr9</a>: Why I interviewed Marine Le Pen <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/marr?src=hash">#marr</a> <a href="https://t.co/cplBTZCHa8">https://t.co/cplBTZCHa8</a></p>— The Andrew Marr Show (MarrShow) November 13, 2016
Immigration, multiculturalism and national identity
At Fréjus, Le Pen railed against “massive immigration”, linking it closely to the question of national identity. Immigration policy and multiculturalism had become dogmatic “religions”. The consequences of the latter, she said, could lead to “civil war between communities”. More than once she spoke of “one language, one culture” as crucial to human dignity within “one national community”.
Although past comments about Muslims have got her into trouble (she was eventually acquitted after being taken to court for comparing street prayers in France to the Nazi occupation), Marine Le Pen’s critics noted an absence of words such as “Islam” or “Islamist” from her rhetoric. Instead she spoke of “these people whose beliefs, values and practices are not ours, who don’t have a vocation to be in France”.
“There’s no need for a decoder, it speaks for itself,” said one historian, Olivier Dard, as quoted in Le Monde. “Her speech is understandable by everyone, it’s symptomatic of the ‘lepen-isation’ of people’s minds”. For another, Gregoire Kauffmann, Le Pen’s opposition to immigrants in the name of a homogenous nation is “a vision of a partitioned and rigid community”.
The EU in the firing line
On economic policy, the Front National’s 2012 manifesto contained commitments to raise the minimum wage and lower the retirement age to 60, reduce energy prices and taxes, introduce trade barriers along with measures designed to help small rather than big business, and give priority to French nationals in employment.
In her speech at Fréjus, Marine Le Pen painted a sombre economic portrait of a country forced to yield to global forces of “ultra-liberalism”. State intervention was staunchly defended (the EU was singled out for banning “economic patriotism”); there was a need for national control in order to develop “large-scale” policies for industry and other areas of the economy.
However – in what was seen as an attempt to appeal to more economically liberal elements of her party, wary of the left – the FN leader called for businesses to be freed up from red tape, and condemned the traps of welfare dependency.
French Far-Right Leader Marine Le Pen Says She And Donald Trump Are Building “A New World” https://t.co/oIAlwA4ro6— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) November 13, 2016
Taking back control
There were strong echoes of Brexit in the 2012 programme, with talk of Article 50 being invoked to break with the “failed” European project. France would take control of its borders and currencies. EU institutions would give way to voluntary partnerships between nation states. A proposal to reintroduce the French franc would be put to a referendum, alongside the euro which would become a “common” rather than a “single” currency.
Recently, Le Pen has talked of wanting to see a “concerted negotiation” among countries to leave the euro and return to the European “currency snake”, created in 1972 among the then EEC countries to maintain stable exchange rates between national currencies.
Complaining of discrimination by banks at home, the Front National has looked to Russia for loans. The plan in its 2012 manifesto for a pan-European partnership of nation states included Russia, but not Turkey. In her BBC interview, Le Pen praised the country’s “reasoned protectionism” under President Putin, who she said was “looking after the interests of his own country, defending its identity”.
Vive #TRUMP ! La dédiabolisation est une foutaise et une impasse. Les peuples ont besoin de vérité et de courage. Bravo l’Amérique !— Jean-Marie Le Pen (@lepenjm) November 9, 2016
Fresh air – or foul stench?
As the 2017 presidential election approaches, a battle continues to rage in the French media over how to treat the Front National. Some fret that the reluctance of mainstream broadcasters to give the FN a platform will only alienate voters further. The newspaper Le Monde on the other hand refuses to report Marine Le Pen’s message without thorough scrutiny.
“She shares the same obsessions (as her father): those of an organic nation on the point of sinking because it is gnawed away at by an internal evil – immigration – threatened by an external enemy – Europe – and betrayed by its elites,” the paper said in an editorial.
For many, the Front National remains firmly anchored on the far-right: xenophobic, authoritarian, not so much modernised as deodourised – and France still needs to hold its nose.