Thursday, 9 February 2017

Europe's 2017 elections are turning into referendums on Trump

Feelings of nationalism are running strong in France, but anti-Americanism may be stronger.

Three years ago, when a former investment banker named Emmanuel Macron was appointed as interior minister in the French government, nobody had ever heard of him. 

Today, he has come out of nowhere to second place in the French presidential election. It looks increasingly likely that he will be in a head-to-head with French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in May's second round of voting. More than anything else, there is one element that explains his meteoric rise: he is presenting himself as the anti-Trump.

His candidacy comes at a time when many in France, and indeed the entire European continent, are terrified that the French presidency will be snatched by Le Pen's far-right National Front - a party with anti-Semitic routes from the ashes of the Second World War. Were Le Pen to win, it would not only have implications for France. It would probably mean the collapse of the European Union, or at least its transformation into an irrelevance.

Le Pen has much in common with Donald Trump, and she (perhaps unwisely) has been vocally celebrating his win in the United States.

Last week, as she formally launched her presidential bid (mercifully for Europe, campaigns here are much shorter than in America), she made a point of praising the new US president and the Americans who elected him.

She painted a picture of France as a country gripped by absolute catastrophe, echoing Trump's "American carnage" inauguration address. She also heaped praise upon the British voters who voted to leave the European Union last June.

She is not wrong to make the comparison. Like Trump and Brexit, Le Pen is receiving electoral aid from Russian President Vladimir Putin. France's intelligence service has concluded that Putin's army of internet bots are spreading pro-Le-Pen propaganda on French websites and in the comments sections of French newspapers. Putin has gone even further than he did in the American election, personally bankrolling Le Pen's campaign in France.

The Anti-Trump

But Le Pen may find that she jumped the gun by associating herself so quickly and dramatically with Trump, Putin and Brexit. Indeed, for a nationalist, her bear hug around foreign powers may come back to haunt her.

In fact, some haunting has already begun. Into the fray has stepped Macron, an avowed centrist who defends the European Union, globalism and free trade. Over the past month he has made it a point to vociferously criticise the new American president in unprecedentedly harsh terms. Centrist leaders across Europe have stood back and marvelled. It's as if Trump has given the European center a new raison d'etre.

Macron has brutally criticised Trump's so-called "Muslim ban" and his quixotic push to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, saying "no ban, no wall". He has promised a France that will stand up to Trump, not roll over and become a "vassal state" (his words) like neighboring Britain under the Brexit regime of Theresa May. 

Much of the criticism has come via Trump's favorite medium, Twitter. This week Macron tweeted an invitation for "Americans who fight for innovation and excellence" to flee the United States and come to France.

More than anything else, Macron has signalled that he understands - more than most European leaders are willing to say publicly - that the United States is now a threat to, not an ally of, Europe.

"What's happening today with Trump's first statements and choices is extremely serious and worrying," he said one week after the inaugeration. "It's firstly a choice that it will be an America that America that destabilises things that have been built for decades. It signifies that the U.S. will no longer be in a position to co-organise globalisation and be the world's policeman with the European Union."

"The unpredictable choices, the outbursts and the inward-looking United States of Trump no longer guarantees Europe's security."

Le Pen, watching her poll numbers drop as Macron's rise (though mostly at the expense of other candidates rather than taking from Le Pen's numbers), seems increasingly painted into a corner. After Macron chose to speak English at a lecture at Humbolt University in Berlin last week, she tweeted, "Poor France!" - saying Macron is a traitor for speaking a language other than French.

The obsession with 'keeping one's tongue pure' is nothing new to French politics, but it made Le Pen look incredibly old-fashioned (and drew attention to the fact that she herself cannot speak any other language). She is running out of ideas to hit back at Macron.

Le Pen's Vichy France under Trump

Russia, of course, will try to make up the difference. Last week Julian Assange of Wikileaks told Russian media he has been given incriminating information about Macron (no mystery as to from whom) and intends to publish it. 

This supposed campaign-changing bombshell has yet to emerge. But it has further added to the appearance of Le Pen as a puppet of foreign powers. And while this may not have bothered Republican voters in America, it is likely to bother conservative voters in France - especially if one of the foreign powers concerned is America.

Post-war France has been fiercely indepence-minded. It refused to join NATO for decades as anything other than an associate member, and will still not allow US troops to be based in French territory (while most other European countries like Britain and Germany are full of US bases).

Indeed, bashing America has been one of the few steady tropes of French politics (and French culture) over the past 60 years. It is one of the main reasons why France pioneered the European Union - to reduce European dependence on America. It is the reason why France vetoed British membership of the EU at first, seeing the country as too America-tied. And it is the reason why France has been pushing for an EU Army, independent of the NATO American military protectorate, for two decades.

So who is this supposedly France-loving nationalist who seems to want to turn France into the puppet of an American president? 

We can see Macron's rhetoric crystalizing around this message. "Britain lived in an equilibrium with Europe," Macron told France Culture radio last week. "But now it is becoming a vassal state, meaning it is becoming the junior partner of the United States."

Though on the surface he was criticizing British PM Theresa May, his real target was Le Pen. He is saying: 'Look what has happened with Brexit - British voters have turned themselves into a vassal state of America. Le Pen will do the same to France'.

Le Pen is no De Gaul. She is a nationalist on the model of Philippe Pétain, who presided over the German puppet state of Vichy France during World War Two. Le Pen is a leader of the Pétain variety.

On this point, continental Europeans have been closely watching what has happened with Brexit since the 23 June vote last year. They have seen the economic wobbles, the ham-handed and confusing six months of initial negotiation in Brussels, and Theresa May's humiliating supplicant visit to Washington last month. Things are not looking rosy for post-Brexit UK. Is this what awaits Le Pen's France?

Make no mistake, the current nationalist tide sweeping over Europe is strong. The Front National appears closer than it has ever been before to winning power in France. But witnessing the turbulent first months of America's new far-right populist president may give French voters pause before casting their lot in with a woman who has cast her lot in with America.

French patriotism still runs strong. And if the French are presented with a choice between a strong France in a strong Europe, or an American-controlled France in an unravelled Europe, it will likely be Macron's vision of the future that wins the day.

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