All eyes on the first round of the French elections next month.
By SHEILA COPPS
First published in The Hill Times on Monday, March 13, 2017.
OTTAWA—The Trump effect is sweeping across Europe, with all eyes on the first round of the French elections next month.
National polls have the anti-immigration party of Marine Le Pen hovering around 30 per cent, with some even suggesting her numbers might climb as high as 40.
Few are predicting a Le Pen win, with opponents working in tandem to undermine her momentum.
But no one is taking anything for granted.
Travelling in Paris last week, I got an earful about how the American phenom was moving east.
Everywhere I went, people were talking about Le Pen’s anti-globalization message and platform planks mirroring those of U.S. President Donald Trump.
It is not the first time the Le Pen family has caught the attention of the French political class.
Marine’s father led the National Front for almost 40 years, before Marine assumed his mantle six years ago, becoming only the second president of the party her family founded. In 2012, she placed third, behind François Hollande and Nicholas Sarkozy, in the presidential election.
Her second presidential bid for the election culminating on May 7 was launched in February.
The Le Pen brand has been around for almost a half-century, but never managed to garner support from more than one in five French voters.
But the winds of change that carried Brexit and Trump seem to be leaving their mark in France too.
Le Pen herself has campaigned to soften the image of the National Front. She went so far as to expel her father-founder from the party almost two years ago for characterizing the Holocaust as a “mere detail” of history.
Le Pen’s political manifesto is eerily similar to Trump’s. Much of her political fire has been reserved for immigrants and Islam. She has also promised to put an end to a financial system that she says is wreaking havoc with blue-collar workers.
Le Pen, a member of the European Parliament since 2004, is promising to put France first by exiting the Union. She also vows to end the twin tyrannies of Islamic fundamentalism and globalization, with a vow to replace the euro with the franc.
If that sounds familiar, there is another surprising similarity shared by the two campaigns.
Washington is abuzz about multiple Trump insiders who, having previously denied it, are now admitting to multiple meetings with Russians during the campaign.
Congress is vowing to get to the bottom of potential Russian election interference, and the investigation may uncover other Muscovite meddling beyond the United States.
Le Pen has publicly sought loans from banks close to Russian President Vladimir Putin to fund her campaign, complaining that traditional French financiers are lukewarm to her efforts.
Le Pen’s initial adversary, Francois Fillon, dropped like a stone in January following allegations of financial impropriety involving political payments to family members for work that was never done.
Last week, new information surfaced involving a secret 50,000-euro loan from a French billionaire, that Fillon “forgot” to report, in violation of French law. Fillon, considered unbeatable last fall, is now in third place behind LePen and independent candidate Emmanuel Macron.
Le Pen was in top spot until late last week, when for the first time, Macron edged ahead by one point.
The first round vote in the French election does not occur until April 23, so there is plenty of time for the see-saw to start.
But with the dramatic descent of Fillon, it appears as though Macron will the beneficiary of the anybody-but-LePen movement.
Just last Wednesday, Macron won the backing of Socialist and former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë who called him “a reformist, a European, and a realist.”
Macron, former economy minister under outgoing French President François Hollande, quit the Socialist Party last year, hoping to cash in on anti-politician sentiment by running as an independent.
Macron refused to participate in the party primary but benefitted from reports that he would have been the Socialist president’s choice. On International Women’s Day, Macron suggested he would like to name a woman prime minister as part of his team. In France, the presidents selects the PM.
If the current numbers hold, the first-round winner is a toss-up. But in a runoff, Macron is expected to win handily.
Macron has been called politically naive by some because, despite sitting in cabinet, he has never held elected office.
However, that didn’t stop Donald Trump from getting the American nod.
Whatever the outcome, it is certainly not business as usual in France.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.