How France’s election mainstreamed an extremist and mirrored Donald Trump’s stranglehold on Rural America

How France’s election mainstreamed an extremist and mirrored Donald Trump’s stranglehold on Rural America
Marine Le Pen in April 2012, Wikimedia Commons

When centrist French President Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right extremist and National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen by 18% in France’s 2022 presidential election on Sunday, April 24, defenders of democracy all over the world breathed a sigh of relief. And yet, the fact that Le Pen performed as well as she did is disturbing on many levels. Journalist Rokhaya Diallo, in an op-ed published by the Washington Post the day after the election, warns that Le Pen’s influence in France has increased — not decreased.

“French President Emmanuel Macron should take no pride in once again defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen,” Diallo argues. “Since her first run for the presidency in 2012, she has gained a substantial degree of influence — enough that the far right is now an unavoidable force in French politics. Instead of celebrating his win, Macron and his supporters should take a close look at how Le Pen and her hateful positions have become part of the French political mainstream.”

Le Pen won roughly 41% of the vote compared to 59% for Macron. Although she ran for president in the past, this was her strongest performance yet in a country that: (1) is a long-time ally of the United States, (2) has nuclear arms and fought with the U.S. in two world wars, and (3) is among the largest economies in the European Union (EU).

Back in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to the U.S. — which shows how much of a bond France and the U.S. have had over the years. And France’s far-right, in the late 2010s and early 2020s, has been bonding with America’s far-right; former President Donald Trump and “War Room” host Steve Bannon are among the MAGA Republicans who have been passionate Le Pen supporters. Trump, more than once, voiced his support of Le Pen over Macron when he wrote, “Make France great again.”

Le Pen isn’t a conservative; she holds White nationalist views — something she denies — and is way to the right of France’s conservative former President Nicholas Sarkozy. But as Diallo points out, Le Pen’s public relations campaign has worked; she has successfully managed to soften her image.”

“Make no mistake: Despite her loss, Le Pen managed to both raise her profile and cultivate an image that whitewashed her dangerous agenda,” Diallo warns. “Over the years, campaign posters shifted from mentioning her last name — associated with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, former head of her party and a notorious racist — to focusing on her first name, all while depicting her with a wide and innocent smile. During this campaign, she used her Instagram account to showcase her love for cats and made public appearances singing outdated popular songs, thus presenting herself as a regular person who does not share the cultural tastes of the elite.”

On Twitter, journalist/author Yascha Mounk was quick to discuss the global implications of Le Pen’s defeat. Mounk, in his articles for The Atlantic, has been warning that liberal democracy is under attack all over the world — from Hungary (where far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was recently reelected) to the U.S. to France. And Mounk tweeted that the defeat of Le Pen, who has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past, was also a defeat for Putin.

But in one of his April 24 tweets on France’s election results, Mounk pointed out that Le Pen outperformed Macron in overseas territories such as Martinique and French Guyana. Mounk believes that France dodged a bullet on April 24, but that bullets aimed at democracy are still flying in many parts of the world. Indeed, extremists in many countries have been voted into office, from Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Journalist Vivienne Walt, in an article published by Time on April 19, examines Le Pen’s advances in rural areas of France — which, she argues, are comparable to former President Donald Trump’s stranglehold on rural areas of the United States.

“Le Pen, just like Trump and pro-Brexit politicians, has found support among some wealthy voters, perhaps evidenced in her first-round election celebration on April 10, at an upscale party venue, which included abundant gourmet food and customized champagne bottles labeled ‘Marine Présidente,’” Walt explains. “But across France, Le Pen has tapped into a deep sense of abandonment felt by millions of French citizens, especially the White working-class. With fewer educational qualifications and dependent on factory jobs, these voters feel they have been left badly trailing by globalization and the tech revolution — and see their leaders as uninterested or incapable of reversing their decline. Travel around the once-manufacturing hubs of France, and one can imagine being in parts of the U.S. Midwest or Britain’s Lincolnshire.”

Walt emphasizes that Le Pen’s hyper-nationalism and pseudo-populist message often resemble Trump and the MAGA movement’s “America First” rhetoric in the U.S.

Walt observes, “Le Pen’s campaign slogan, ‘give the French back their country and their money,’ echoes the nationalism of Trump’s ‘America First and the Brexit slogan ‘take back control,’ which helped drive those campaigns to victory. ‘The parallels are striking,’ Stéphane Bussard, a journalist for the Swiss newspaper Le Temps and author of a book on Trump, wrote on April 12. ‘Several economic, social, and political conditions favorable to (Le Pen) strongly resemble those which allowed Donald Trump to be elected to the White House in November, 2016’…. Those conditions are sure to remain.”

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