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Coffee at Trump Tower


Donald Trump’s victory was supposed to help Marine Le Pen. But so far, there’s been no bounce in her poll ratings, and her relationship with the new White House is murky at best.

© REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In the days and weeks after Donald Trump’s surprise election to America’s top job, France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen could hardly contain her glee. Trump’s victory was proof that she was in the right, she claimed, as his lines echoed those of her Front National party. Like the new US president, the FN has built its success on an anti-immigration, anti-elite platform that champions national sovereignty and law and order. She hailed Trump’s win as the start of a new international order.

“We are living through the end of one world, and the birth of another,” Le Pen told crowds at a meeting of Europe’s far-right leaders in Germany this January, which included Frauke Petry of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the Netherlands’ right-wing Geert Wilders. “I am sure that 2017 will be the year that the continent rises up,” Le Pen added. (Germany and the Netherlands are all headed to the polls this year.)

If elected, Le Pen, who applauded Britain’s vote for Brexit, has vowed to take the country out of the euro, to seek revised terms for France’s EU membership, and put exit up for referendum. For her, EU membership has stripped France of its autonomy on immigration, monetary, and fiscal policy.

“I will give back to you, the French people, your currency because there is no free country that does not control its currency, your borders, because no free country does not control its borders,” she said during a TV interview in late February.

And with his first moves in the White House, Trump has amplified Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-Islam plea. His measures “are compatible with Le Pen’s,” says political commentator Christophe Barbier. “She is able to say, ‘You can see the same thing even in America’s democracy! Trump is building a wall on the Mexican border, so if I reestablish border checks to stop migrants from entering, I am part of the norm.’”

But many French analysts don’t actually believe that Le Pen can really capitalize on Trump’s victory. She has not seen a surge in popularity since he took office – at best, her supporters have been comforted in their choice and have been allowed to shake off any sense of guilt.

“When they see Trump’s anti-Muslim comments, it clears their conscience,” says Barbier. “They think that to be against Islam might be unpopular among intellectuals here, but it is popular in the US.”

West Wing Calling?

Meanwhile, Le Pen’s relationship with Trump and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has yet to be clarified. Bannon has openly thrown his support behind nationalist, anti-EU movements across the continent. And Trump himself cheered the Brexit vote, saying the United Kingdom has been doing “great” since its choice to leave the bloc. But that might be as far as the commonalities go.

A few days before Trump’s inauguration, Le Pen was seen sipping coffee at the bar in Trump Tower in New York. It is open to the public, and Le Pen claimed she was on a private visit. Critics said she could have put a picture of herself with the future US leader to good use. But after a three-hour wait, the then president-elect’s spokesman Sean Spicer told the press she would not meet with anyone from the Trump team.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the FN’s chief economic strategist, Bernard Monot, admitted the main reason Le Pen had traveled to New York was to raise funds for her campaign, but that she had been unsuccessful so far.

“I don’t believe Trump thinks anything of Marine Le Pen,” says Barbier. “He doesn’t think anything of France. We are a bit of confetti; we don’t exist because he is a president who believes Europe has become an insignificant part of the world.”

Yet according to reporters from the The Daily Beast, Le Pen did meet Guido Lombardi, an influential Trump supporter (he is listed as a co-founder of the Citizens for Trump group on their website); he describes himself as a go-between for Europe’s far-right parties looking to establish links to the Trump administration. Reports also emerged after Trump’s election victory that Bannon called Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen – considered the fresh face of the far-right – a “rising star” and expressed interest in working with the Le Pen family. Those reports have yet to be confirmed.

Marine Le Pen did meet with two Republican lawmakers from the US, Dana Rohrabacher of California and Steve King of Iowa, who were in France to discuss “liberty and shared values,” as King tweeted.

But now in office, Trump has not proven himself a role model for French voters, says Barbier – in fact quite the opposite. “Trump is so odious, so vulgar, that he really gives the impression he is incompetent. There are no voters in France saying, ‘We need a Trump, give us a Trump!’”

The roots of populism in France also lie further back than Trump’s rise to the White House. The issues of immigration and globalization that drove some voters to the polls in the US have long been part of a heated debate in France.

“France is one of the countries most exposed to challenges of the world today. There is a feeling that we don’t really know where Europe is heading,” says Bruno Cautres, a researcher at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po. “The level of social anxiety is very high; people are expressing their need to feel protected.”

An Uphill Battle

The FN has gained more votes with every new election, while successive governments have floundered in their attempts to set the French economy back on track and tackle security issues amid a spate of Islamist terror attacks. But lately, the the far-right party’s numbers have stagnated.
And even if Le Pen’s anti-immigration and anti-Islam discourse resembles Trump’s, they have little else in common. While Le Pen wants to halt the flow of immigrants into France, she does not advocate actually building a wall along France’s borders.

“I think Donald Trump and his intelligence services wanted to set up criteria and conditions to avoid having potential terrorists enter the United States where they might commit attacks, the same way France was the victim of attacks,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview. She avoided answering the question of whether she would introduce a similar ban in France.

Also, in contrast to Trump’s fiscal politics, Le Pen backs a socially oriented program that favors public spending, rolls back the retirement age to sixty, maintains the 35-hour-workweek, and introduces a raise for low-paid workers.

“Marine Le Pen is not Donald Trump. She is not a billionaire, she is not ultra-liberal, she really does not have the same political software,” says Barbier. “There are some common points, she is as pro-Putin as Trump can be and as anti-immigrant as Trump can be, but they are not a copy of each other, and we shouldn’t see her as a little Trump-like Frenchwoman.”