French politics

How the Trump factor can influence the French elections

Marine Le Pen of France, like the American president, capitalises on discontent over the establishment, job and cultural insecurity.

If you asked a Wisconsin farmer why he voted for Donald Trump when his great-grandparents supported Senator Robert La Follette, a maverick progressive, he might not have an answer. If you asked a French voter from the wider suburbs what he might have in common with a Wisconsin farmer, he would give a bewildered laugh.

Yet there is a link between the upsurge for Trump, which surprised even the Republican establishment, and the tide of French voters for the National Front and its vocal candidate, Marine Le Pen, who just launched her raucous campaign. Each combines disaffection from the established parties – all liars, damn liars – a sense of dispossession where one cannot separate economic and job safety issues from wider cultural insecurity, which leads to a reversal of attitude towards newcomers and foreigners. Voters come from both the right and left.

The reversal towards foreigners is particularly telling. France alone in Europe shares a unique characteristic with the United States: it has long been an immigrant country. Every other European nation saw large waves of emigration from the mid-19th century to the 1930s. Millions of Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles, North Africans and Western Africans came to France in the heyday of economic growth, and while there was friction, xenophobic groups were not a significant force.

Divisions within and without

In fact, the strongest discrimination targeted competitors from within – antisemitism defined the French far right more than xenophobia in the pre-World War II era. Republicanism was the functional equivalent of “In God we trust,” also serving to paper over obvious inequalities and common prejudice.

Post-war, immigration turned to non-European newcomers. Still French-speaking for the most part, and despite racism, they gradually integrated in what was, until a decade ago, the world’s most functional melting pot, as measured, for example, by the rate of intermarriage. Two events tipped the balance: a generous policy adopted in the late 1970s, allowing family relatives to join immigrants already in place, at the same time that unemployment rates began an inexorable rise.

The French-born children of the previous generation of immigrants are not integrating and often revert to imagined communities from their countries of origin. The simultaneous shift of policy from integration to multiculturalism transformed into a political disaster. Never mind what is really responsible, whether the rise of militant Islam, which reduces inter-community exchanges and marital unions, or mass unemployment, now at 10% and reaching 50% in the most disaffected neighbourhoods.

Communitarianism and destitute ghettos are worse in the United States, but fear pervades France too: Marseille’s roughly 30 violent murders per year are talked about as much as Chicago’s 700 victims.

Trump effect

This suggests that France could be sensitive to the Trump vote effect. Here is a brash celebrity from New York who battles the status quo with plebeian appeal, whose money largely originated in the building industry – the brick and mortar economy. In France, too, there is widespread suspicion, especially in “la France périphérique” of the “elites”: journalists, who rate even lower than politicians in opinion polls, high civil servants with their revolving door from politics to large companies and finance.

A major issue for the less educated French is what jobs and acquired benefits they might keep as the digital economy takes control. Here is a politician who talks about “us and them,” what the elites like to call a nativist. The United States and France share similar feelings of dispossession: it may be economic, the fear of “falling” or “déclinisme” is widespread. It may be based on tensions about identity, with Mexican immigrants and the language issue, the few but conspicuous Muslim immigrants, viewed as threats.

In France, with the largest percentage of Muslims of all EU countries except Bulgaria, the prospect of another wave of Muslim newcomers, combined with an immediate terrorist threat, has tipped public opinion against immigration.

But there are also great differences. In the United States, the wage decline of blue-collar as well as many white collar employees is as undeniable as the record-breaking surge of a small class collecting the benefits of globalisation. In France, wages have continued to rise, and an extensive tax system targets the rich. A majority of Americans still rejects universal health care, but the French seem ready to go to the barricades if it is withdrawn for French citizens – they are less touchy about foreign residents.

The Christian right exists in France, but has less influence than in the United States. Part of the radical right in the United States rejects the federal government, while this is almost unknown in France. In the United States, the 65+ age group voted predominantly for Trump, and the Democrats still hold on to the youth vote. In France, the National Front is the leading party among young voters, while retirees still vote for traditional conservative parties.

Poles apart

The real political crux is that it’s hard to find someone as different from Donald Trump as Marine Le Pen. The family business she inherited is a political party, the Front National with a structure of top-down and personal leadership, exclusions and elaborate united front tactics. While Trump may have taken a leaf from Bernie Sanders, a Democratic challenger to Hillary Clinton, he admires entrepreneurs and business people, naming more billionaires to cabinet positions than any of his predecessors. Marine Le Pen, instead, has an economic program that seems a resurrection of the old 1970s French Communist platform with systematic opposition to bankers, Europe and any economic reform.

Her first motto for the coming campaign – “La France apaisée,” France appeased – borrowed from an old François Mitterrand slogan, not exactly words for a revolutionary upsurge or to “make France great again.” She manages a smiling media presence that often disarms criticism while Trump seems to revel in polarising hyperboles. In short, Le Pen has all the trappings of a highly professional politician – and is sometimes criticised as such by more radical members of her own party.

More fundamentally, in France it is the political left that is exploding under the weight of contradictions. While the officially designated candidate comes from the left wing of the Socialist party, he is overtaken by two other candidates running outside the party, one even more to his left, the other claiming to be “neither right nor left.” The conventional right by and large kept its unity. In the United States, the Republicans may have won an unexpected majority, but they are divided as they have never been in their history with Trump upending his share of bedrock Republican principles.

For now, Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate, leads the polls for the first turn of the election. The same polls indicate that she would be defeated by a wide margin in the second round by Emmanuel Macron, the newcomer who is “neither left nor right,” and more narrowly by François Fillon, the conservative candidate who is hit by a financial issue.

It may turn out that the rocky start of the Trump years becomes a deterrent for voters in France and Europe. If France’s political right – which has conducted a successful primary – failed to draw voters away from the National Front, it would not be because Le Pen has successfully symbolized anger and discontent, but because she has reassured voters beyond her camp. Her public footprint of the last two years has been designed to show her as a reasonable and acceptable candidate, up to and including some wobbling on leaving the euro.

Were she to succeed, still possible at present, she would be constrained by such political requirements. She could simply not carry out what was once the crux of her program – leaving the euro and the EU. The immediate shock would be in terms of dealing with immigration from outside Europe – that is an area where both the traditional right and Socialist government of François Holland have undergone profound change.

Whatever superficial similarity there might be between the movements of Trump and Le Pen, their rise in power would produce very different results.

This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.