Trump stays vague on French election – Politico

Two days before a French election that has Europe on edge, President Donald Trump weighed in Friday with a tweet that seemed to imply support for the controversial far-right populist Marine Le Pen.

Trump’s Friday morning tweet responded to a shooting the day before on Paris’s Champs Elysees that outgoing French President Francois Hollande called a likely act of terrorism.

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“Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!” Trump wrote.

A contender for France’s presidency, Le Pen has made the terrorist threat— particularly from Muslim immigrants to France—a top campaign issues.

Until Friday morning, Trump had maintained a studious neutrality in the French vote, despite suspicions throughout Europe that he and his senior strategist Steve Bannon favor Le Pen, a fellow anti-establishment populist.

Le Pen – a fierce European Union critic and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin – is one of four candidates running neck-and-neck ahead of a Sunday vote that will winnow the French presidential field to two finalists for a May 7 runoff election.

In a Thursday news conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Trump had dodged a question about the French vote, responding in general terms about the value of Europe.

“A strong Europe is very, very important to me,” Trump said. “We want to see it. We will help it be strong, and it’s very much to everybody’s advantage.”

That studied neutrality came hours after former President Barack Obama fielded a call from one of Le Pen’s centrist rivals, Emmanuel Macron. A spokesman said Obama was not making an endorsement but added that he is committed to France being “a leader on behalf of liberal values in Europe and around the world.”

Le Pen’s critics call her an opponent of liberal values and say that her victory would make Europe anything but strong – by dealing a potentially lethal blow to its key institutions and economy just as the perceived threat posed by Trump’s victory seems to be receding.

“The stakes for Europe are tremendous – this is a historic election,” said Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. A Le Pen victory, which many French analysts consider plausible though unlikely, could mean “the end of Europe as we’ve known it since World War II,” he added.

Le Pen has called herself “Madame Frexit” and wants a referendum on whether France should follow Britain out of the EU. “If France is out of the EU, it’s the end of the EU,” France’s ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, recently told CNN.

Le Pen has also called for France to at least partially withdraw from NATO.

She also has a supporter in Putin, who recently hosted her at Kremlin for a friendly photo-op. “It’s now the world of Putin, the world of Donald Trump,” Le Pen declared after the meeting. Western officials say Russian intelligence has sought to influence France’s election in support of Le Pen.

Trump’s Friday tweet did not name Le Pen and left his preference unstated. But foreign policy experts read it as implied support for Le Pen, who seized on Thursday’s attack to call for a border security crackdown and the immediate arrest of all suspects on France’s terrorist watch list.

“[I]n France, as today’s tweet makes clear, he’s rooting for Le Pen,” tweeted Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer.

Europe’s far-right candidates have drawn strength in recent years from a wave of terror attacks inspired or directed by the Islamic State, although it is unclear whether Thursday’s attack, in which a man with an AK-47 killed one police officer before he was shot dead, will influence Sunday’s vote. Le Pen’s rivals have also reacted strongly to the attack and pledged to tighten security.

The parallels between Le Pen’s candidacy and Trump’s had stoked speculation in Europe after his election that the U.S. president might work openly to assist her.

So did Le Pen’s December visit to the lobby of Trump Tower, which many French officials believe was just a publicity stunt. Trump officials say she was in a public area and that neither he nor Bannon met with her.