PARIS – Did Marine Le Pen win the U.S. presidential election? In the French political world, many believe the answer is yes. The Americans’ choice of Donald Trump, from the French perspective a populist and unabashed racist, could very well reverberate all the way to Paris. Actually, it could reverberate all the way to France’s agricultural and industrial areas – Provence, Saint tienne, Normandy, the Riviera, the Alps and beyond.
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Less than two hours after the results came in, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin talked about another “possible and proximate result: the election of National Front leader Marine Le Pen to the lysée Palace.”
In the French reading, the U.S. result reflects two distinct decisions by voters, and both seem to be happening in France and many other Western countries.
First, Trump’s election represents the total victory of identity politics, with a twist where the ruling class subordinates political ideology to the candidate identified with it ethnically.
This support characterizes white male voters who are supposed to feel privileged but actually aren’t seeing any clear economic consequence of this privilege. All around them, other ethnic groups are burgeoning and declaring intentions to take from them the little there is.
This isn’t only happening in the U.S. heartland. The French heartland is full of such voters, who traditionally vote for the Communists, the Socialists or the center parties but might suddenly opt for a party that directly addresses their anxieties; that is, the National Front.
In the French reading, the second decision by American voters was to punish the “reasonable,” “pretty good” and “sane” candidate who didn’t present any significant proposal for change. France is full of such candidates on the right and left, while the candidate leading in the polls, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, fits this description almost perfectly.
Well before France’s presidential election this coming spring, France can consider whether this comparison applies in the right’s primary on November 20. Between 1.5 million and 2.8 million people are expected to vote; most registered voters might even wait for the second round on November 27.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s battling Juppé at the top of the polls, is trying to spin the U.S. election in the way that suits him best; he’s portraying himself as the French Donald Trump minus the racism. Throughout his election campaign he has pursued an anti-immigrant line, perhaps even more extreme than Le Pen’s.
Juppé, however, is claiming that the new France’s multicultural identity can lead to prosperity and happiness. Judging by the U.S. election, white men aren’t looking for happiness at the moment; they want their privileges back. It would appear they want Sarkozy.
The Socialists find themselves facing problems no less acute. Do their candidates have any answer to the profound desire for change? Can the ostensibly natural candidate, President François Hollande, compete amid the new questions from America?
Hollande and the left have more than six months to think about all this – until the end of May. In the meantime, he has to think about how he can work with a U.S. president-elect he once said makes people “want to retch.” He called on the American people not to vote for him.
And on the other side of the Atlantic, Trump will have to think once again about his declaration “I wouldn’t go to France because France is no longer France.” France might no longer be France, but the United States isn’t what it used to be either.