Credit Illustration by Tom Bachtell
“At the moment, the mode in France is to compare the American election with the situation at home,” Frédéric Lefebvre said, on the phone the other day from Portland, Oregon. Lefebvre, who served as the secretary for trade and tourism under Nicolas Sarkozy, is now a member of the Assemblée Nationale, representing the approximately two hundred and ten thousand French citizens living in Canada and the United States. “To quote Verlaine, there’s a ‘bad wind’ blowing across the entire world,” he continued. “For me, the lesson is that Marine Le Pen can be elected in France.”
Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, the far-right party that her Holocaust-denier father helped start, in 1972, is one of the most obvious international beneficiaries of a Donald Trump Presidency. “A new world is emerging, global equilibriums are being redefined by the fact of Trump’s election,” she proclaimed at a press conference the day after the election. She mentioned “political élites,” “free people,” and “condescension,” employing the vocabulary of the Brexit and MAGA franchise. Florian Philippot, her closest adviser, had tweeted, “Their world is crumbling, ours is being built.” The mutually admiring troika of the Brexit instigator Nigel Farage, Le Pen, and Trump now constitute a global movement against globalism.
France’s next Presidential election will culminate in May. Until recently, the conventional wisdom had been that, after a first round of voting, Le Pen would face Alain Juppé, the amiable mayor of Bordeaux and a former Prime Minister, in a runoff. Juppé was favored to win the center-right primary, the first round of which was held on Sunday, a week after the one-year anniversary of the Paris attacks. “I’m not Hillary Clinton,” he told reporters, somewhat pleadingly. “And who is Trump in France? Let’s be serious.”
The French political classes are drawing two conclusions from Trump’s win: (1) you can’t trust polls, and (2) the repudiation of Hillary Clinton—like Juppé, a somewhat uninspiring but respectable candidate—could strengthen the former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also seeking the center-right nomination. (A third candidate, François Fillon, another former Prime Minister, has been surging in recent weeks.) Never famous for his delicacy, Sarkozy seems emboldened. Asked at a campaign meeting what to do about school menus for students who don’t eat pork, he suggested giving them “a double portion of fries.”
On the left, the current French President, François Hollande, who not long ago confessed that the American Republican candidate made him “want to retch,” said that Trump’s victory “opened a period of uncertainty in Europe.” He could easily have been talking about his own political future. Though Hollande has yet to declare his candidacy, he is presumably running for reëlection, with an approval rating as low as four per cent. Would the country’s ambitious Prime Minister, Manuel Valls—declaiming “the need for borders” the day after the American election, talking about the decline of the working class as he toured factories the next—finally stage a coup? Would Emmanuel Macron, a thirty-eight-year-old defector from Hollande’s cabinet, running as an independent, siphon off a considerable number of votes from whoever ends up representing the left? Or could the instability introduced by Trump actually profit Hollande, who could press his institutional advantage as a sitting President?
France is different from the U.K. and the U.S. in that it lacks a powerful tabloid press; elections, almost quaintly, continue to be contested on differences of ideology rather than fact. And Trump may have lost his shine—or his novelty—by the time France’s election takes place. If a Trumpified Sarkozy wins the center-right nomination and progresses to the second round of voting, left-wing voters—who have traditionally rallied behind right-wing candidates in order to block the Front National—may shun him, even at the expense of handing the election to Le Pen. According to the untrustable polls, there is almost no chance that Hollande will squeak through the first round of voting, but were he to do so, France might very well have its own first Madame la Présidente.
Frédéric Lefebvre had been convinced all along that Trump could win. He spends two weeks of most months in Paris and two weeks travelling among his constituency, in an area that is forty times the size of France. “A year ago, I was in San Francisco for the weekend,” he said. “I went to Point Reyes to see the whales and then to eat oysters at Marshall, and I met many, many Americans during this moment of pleasure. I remember I met a young woman—she was thirty-five years old, had two daughters, and was working all day doing valet parking at a restaurant. It was just after Trump said some horrible things about women, and she told me, ‘I will vote for Trump, because I want to change this system.’ ”
Lefebvre had given a speech in Portland. Afterward, he said, a woman approached and told him that she was moving back to France. Another told him that her son, a college student in New York, was withdrawing to return to Vancouver. Lefebvre composed a letter and, the next day, sent it to his constituents, with the subject line “A new President of the United States.” He wrote, “From Portland in Oregon, where large protests have taken place, I was able to feel your worry.” ♦