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The French elections are a scary echo of Trump's rise to power

Apr. 6, 2017
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France’s Presidential Election and Trump’s First Term. The political situations in these two democratic countries share uncanny similarities. 

The French presidential election is less than a month away, and it’s being called one of the least predictable elections in the Fifth Republic: the sitting president, François Hollande, bowed out of the race in December--an unheard-of move--while voters rejected Nicolas Sarkozy, an ex-Prime Minister, in the November primaries. Most voters remain dissatisfied with the current nominees. What’s more, the two main contenders for president are Marine Le Pen, who incites nationalist sentiment with her anti-immigrant policies, and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist yet modern candidate. His lack of affiliation to any political party is yet another unprecedented development in the country’s history.  

If Le Pen is elected at the end of April, France might be seeing a very similar future to what the United States has faced under Trump. While Trump’s nationalist aims for the U.S. include taking down Obamacare, building a wall between the United States and Mexico, and implementing an anti-Muslim immigration ban, Le Pen has championed several policies that strike a remarkably similar tone. Among other things, she has similarly denounced the euro, saying she would implement a new franc and hold a referendum on leaving the European Union within her first six months. Many liberals in the United States thought Trump would not bother trying to go through with implementing his promised policies; after seeing what he’s attempted so far, however, the world has begun preparing in earnest for more of these “patriotic” goals to come to fruition. If Le Pen is as serious as Trump, her decision to lead France out of the EU could undermine the political project that has united Europe since 1951.

After Brexit and Trump’s election, France may be poised to continue the trend of conservative populist movements triumphing over liberal ideology. This time around, though, it seems people no longer assume that present liberal ideologies will continue to thrive. People are fighting against the implementation of conservative policies in the U.S., and France remains in shock over the outcome of our presidential election. The Obama era won the United State’s reputation as the most progressive Western country, and in 2016 we voted against this history. April may see the election of Macron and the continuation of a liberal-left era for France, or it may see the Front Nationale gain stronger prominence with Le Pen as President. Either way, the consequences of France’s choice will have implications beyond the country’s borders.

As an American studying in Paris this semester, I haven’t been in the U.S. since Trump’s inauguration. I’ve experienced his presidency so far as an expat, though I’m by no means “escaping” Trump’s America. When I introduce myself to Parisians, often one of the first things they ask me is whether or not I voted for him. This question is asked uneasily, and it’s clear they aren’t sure how far his reach extends (in America, for example, most would probably presume a liberal arts girl studying comparative literature not to be a Trump supporter). The Parisians laugh with relief when I say no. A similar exchange happened with my host mother during my first week in Paris. I not only told her that I didn’t vote for him, but that Trump actually lost the popular vote.

 “That’s crazy,” she said. “In France, a president can only take office by the popular vote.” And in light of the parallels between Le Pen and Trump, what she went on to say about the conservative French presidential nominee resonated with me. 

We discovered in our conversation that support for Le Pen comes from a similar demographic to Trump: they are both heavily supported by the rural working-class areas and old industrial towns that have been hit the hardest by globalization. In the U.S., we call this place the “rust belt.” In France, it’s “la France périphérique” (“peripheral France”). Trump and Le Pen exploit the working class’s sense of abandonment, promising more nationalist economic policies under their presidency.

I told her that many people in the U.S. didn’t predict Trump’s election. He was a presidential nominee that I, too, ignorantly thought could never hold office. She told me that the French liberal elite approaches Le Pen’s candidacy with a certain arrogance, a sense of certainty that  there’s no way she could win. Again, it was an attitude that sounded uncannily familiar.

I learned that Le Pen’s popularity comes from an insurgent populism common to France and the U.S., where a working class that feels abandoned by the liberal elite revolts against the political establishment. It seems that the U.S. has finally begun to reckon with the power--and the limitations--of the white working-class vote, and a progressive groundswell has already begun fighting Trump’s policies and urging more people to vote in the midterm elections. The attitude in France, it seems, largely remains where the U.S. was less than year ago: denial of the far-right candidate’s ability to win the popular vote.

“We will see, though, if she wins,” she told me, cutting her cauliflower. “I don’t think she will. Maybe the primaries, but not the final election.”

“I thought that about Trump,” I said.

“Yes, but it’s different here. She doesn’t have enough support. I think, in the end, people won’t vote for her.”

I hope my host mom is right.