If Marine Le Pen wins France’s upcoming presidential election, it will be a shock for a liberal elite on a similar scale to Donald Trump’s surprise win in November.
In many ways, the two leaders will be riding the same wave. Le Pen’s National Front and the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party share a populist, right-wing worldview, skeptical of international norms with strong anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiment. Some analysts suggest that just as opinion polls failed to predict a Trump presidency, Le Pen’s chances are being undervalued in France, too.
But if you look closely at the relationship between the two leaders, you can see that something more complicated is at work. Often, this relationship has been one-sided, with Le Pen’s attempts to establish a link between her movement and Trump’s being met with seeming indifference. Recently, Le Pen seems to have gone cold on the relationship, too.
The French far-right politician had spoken often of Trump since the U.S. businessman-turned-politician emerged as a candidate in 2015. Last summer, she told a French magazine that if she was American, she would vote for Trump; after his win, she was the first foreign politician to congratulate him. Speaking to the media in November, she seemed excited for what that victory might mean for her own political chances.
“Donald Trump has made possible what was presented as completely impossible,” Le Pen told CNN in an interview. “So it’s a sign of hope for those who cannot bear wild globalization. They cannot bear the political life led by the elites.”
But Trump has rarely offered any public acknowledgment to his French counterpart. Despite his frequent references to the changing nature of Paris (including an unusual anecdote about a friend named Jim who refuses to go to the French capital anymore), Trump has kept quiet about French politics since becoming president. As the first round of voting approaches, little changed.
Even a phone call Thursday between former president Barack Obama and centrist Le Pen rival Emmanuel Macron didn’t shake Trump into taking action. When explicitly asked about the French election at a news conference Thursday, Trump dodged the question. It took a deadly shooting in Paris for Trump to finally start talking about the election.
“Another terrorist attack in Paris,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post on Thursday evening. “The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!” The next day, Trump followed up on his comments in an interview with the Associated Press. Specifically noting that he was not endorsing Le Pen, he suggested that the attack would help her as she was the candidate who is “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”
There is little evidence of a close relationship between the U.S. president and the would-be French leader. Le Pen’s name has never been mentioned on Trump’s hyperactive Twitter account, though Le Pen has tweeted his name a number of times. The two do not appear to have met in person: When Le Pen visited Trump tower in January, she did not meet with the then-president-elect or any members of his transition team, and was instead photographed having coffee at an ice cream parlor on the ground floor.
Trump’s seeming rejection of his would-be French ally is more surprising when you consider the close ties he has formed to European politicians like Nigel Farage, a right-wing British politician who has a fraction of the political power Le Pen stands to gain. Members of Trump’s entourage also seem to share a bond with the European far right of all stripes — most notably Stephen K. Bannon, the former editor of the Breitbart website, who has praised the Le Pen family and whose worldview seems indebted to the French far right.
Le Pen has spoken against some of Trump’s policies, most notably a missile strike against the Syrian government, after which she accused Trump of making the United States “the world’s policeman” once again.
Even before this shift, the relationship between Trump and Le Pen was going to be complicated. Trump was a one-time Democrat who edged from the center to the fringes, and now may be heading back again. Le Pen, meanwhile, has spent years trying to shake off the National Front’s historical links to the far right, forged under the leadership of her father, and move toward the center.
Notably, her political language is far more sophisticated and nuanced than Trump’s, who polls show as largely unpopular with the French public. “Seriously, have you ever heard me say something like that?” Le Pen said.
Le Pen and Trump share a surface similarity, but both are products of two very different political systems and cultures. While the French far-right leader was once emboldened by the American leader’s success, it’s possible that any overt partnership by the two could is deemed too risky by both parties. It took a terrorist attack to bring them together, for the time being at least.
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