Why Trump's presidency may not be boon for French populist Le Pen

While the leader of France's far-right National Front party has played up her ties to the incoming US president, her supporters are much cooler on the American businessman.

Pavel Golovkin/AP/File
A journalist holds a poster with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, France's far-right National Front president, Marine Le Pen, center, and President-elect Donald Trump, prior to Mr. Putin's annual news conference in Moscow in December.

Donald Trump’s inauguration Friday as the next American president is a turning point for the far-right in Europe: they hope it powers the transatlantic tidal wave of populism to both shores.

Here in France, the leader of the far-right National Front (FN), Marine Le Pen, was in fact one of the first foreign politicians to congratulate Mr. Trump on election night. Last week she was photographed inside Trump Tower. She followed in the footsteps of Nigel Farage, another of Europe’s leading populists who led the Brexit charge and posed with Trump outside the gilded elevators of his New York City base after he swept the presidency.

The only problem? An ambivalence about Mr. Trump among actual far-right supporters in Europe. Their version of nationalism is often infused with anti-Americanism, and might collide with the tactical goals of far-right leadership in Europe. Though Le Pen and others may view Trump as a potential ally in defying globalism and Europeanism, the rank and file still see him as a prototypical boorish American.

“He’s useless,” scoffs Jacqueline Castanaer, a pensioner in Nice who views the FN as the party that can “clean things up a little” at home, but is no fan of what’s happened on the other side of the ocean. “I do not know why Americans voted for him. He understands nothing about foreign policy. He says any old thing."

Le Pen's tactic

Le Pen at least sees strategy in a rapprochement with Trump. For starters, says Laurence Nardon, head of the North American Program at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), his victory aids her detoxification drive of a party with anti-Semitic roots. On many issues her platform is similar to his, Ms. Nardon says. “But what is very refreshing to someone like Marine Le Pen is [his] lack of those very dark historical references.”

Trump’s victory also gives populists, long written off as fringe long shots, the hope that “anything can happen,” notes Philippe Roger, the author of "The American Enemy: A history of French anti-Americanism."

Still, he says, an actual alliance would require a degree of “acrobatics” on the FN's part because of the anti-Americanism that runs through French culture on both the right and left. The far-right is a particularly strong bastion. “This feeling that Mr. Trump’s election is good news doesn’t make [FN supporters] any more pro-American,” Mr. Roger says.

Perhaps that is why Le Pen, at a recent press conference with foreign journalists, made an effort to congratulate, and yet distance herself from, Trump. “I am a totally free woman,” she said when asked about her relationship both with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I don’t want France to be subjugated by the US,” she said, and added, “I also don’t want us to be subjugated by Russia.”

Many voters, especially those who don't support her, worry about what those eventual bilateral relations would really look like, especially with a new poll out Thursday, published in Le Monde. It showed Le Pen moving into the lead.

Cafe worker Arnaud Porté in Nice says of Trump: “I’m feeling bad for you [Americans] and bad for me, because it’s the most powerful country in the world,” he says after a busy lunch shift. “It will all be worse if Le Pen is elected because our presidents would have a relationship,” he says.

“If we elect Le Pen,” he concludes, “we’re crazy, too.”

FN's disdain

French attitudes toward the US improved under President Obama, especially after lows under George W. Bush, spurred by his invasion of Iraq. Nardon suspects that there won’t be as big of a pendulum swing this time. That's because the French view was that under the Bush administration, “the US was acting as one,” she says, but in this case, Trump’s victory has deeply divided America as Le Pen’s victory would at home, as Mr. Porté's views make clear.

Still, Roger says the next president will reinforce the idea that Obama's election was an enlightened exception to the rule among the American electorate.

"Mr. Trump appears, especially seen by French people, as such a caricature of the ‘ugly American’ that it’s like a gift for anti-Americanism,” he says. “The reaction will be something like, ‘oh, vous voyez [you see], they are back to what really is America, that is someone like Mr. Trump.’”

Those sentiments will likely span across political ideologies, including the far right.

Ms. Castanaer, for one, has lived in a working class neighborhood of central Nice for 35 years and laments an “elegant,” “peaceful,” and truly “magnificent” community that has been overrun by immigration and drugs. She says neither the mainstream right nor left has done anything about it, nor moved France ahead in general. The terrorism attack that took 86 lives in this city on Bastille Day, after an Islamic radical mowed down revelers on the Promenade des Anglais, has heightened a sense of fear that the FN has tapped into.

Her views on many issues echo much of what Trump himself has said, both about Europe and the US. Still, she says, she sees vast differences between the next American president and the far-right French hopeful. She wants border controls back in Europe and a sense of sovereignty, faulting Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany for letting in migrants during the refugee crisis in 2015. But she says Trump's talk about a "wall" on the Mexican border is nonsense.

She says she doesn’t know what to think about Le Pen’s trip to the Trump Tower, but she is clear about one thing. “He is really not smart, and she is.”

And then she utters what is probably the most common expression of anti-Americanism in France: "All he thinks about is money."

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