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Opinion Why the French elections are more important than Brexit

The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom stunned many observers, not only because the polls had misjudged popular sentiment but also because of what it told us about global populist sentiment. Brexit’s impact on the British government (David Cameron was forced to resign) and the future of Europe (the first significant rollback in the continent’s economic integration) is still playing out. But if you thought that was earthshaking, take a look at the French presidential election this Sunday, which arguably may have an even bigger impact on the United States and the West more generally.

As in the United States, France’s traditional parties have shattered, and a fractured, polarized electorate has undone old party alliances. Of the four top contenders bunched within a few points of one another, only one is a member of a traditional, major political party — François Fillon from France’s main conservative party. All but one — center-left independent candidate and current frontrunner Emmanuel Macron — are to one degree or another anti-European Union and pro-Russia. (Interestingly, former president Barack Obama placed a call to Macron, signaling support for Macron’s pro-U.S. and pro-European views.)

Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, is expected to get to the second round with a platform very much in keeping with Trumpism (anti-immigrant, anti-alliances, pro-Russia). Little wonder then that President Trump briefly waded in, although his tweet (what else?) was vague. The Post reports:

“Another terrorist attack in Paris,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post. “The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!”
The French election has become a critical test of strength for Le Pen and her National Front party at a time when nationalism has overshadowed other votes in the West, including Trump’s victory and last year’s British referendum on leaving the European Union.

Her election would send shock waves through Europe, threatening the existence of NATO and the E.U. But contrary to Trump’s assumption, it is not clear that she will benefit from the apparent terrorist incident on the Champs-Élysées. Yes, she has been running on fear of Islamist terror and the vow to protect France, but she has been accused of overreaching when, during a debate on the night of the attack, she blatantly attempted to exploit the attack. The BBC reported:

The far right’s Marine Le Pen pledged to expel radical Islamists while the center-right’s Francois Fillon talked of fighting “Islamist totalitarianism”.
Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve accused Mr Fillon and Ms Le Pen of cynically exploiting the attack.
Friday is the last day of campaigning before Sunday’s election.
Ms Le Pen, Mr Fillon and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron all cancelled their final campaign events as a mark of respect for the policeman killed on Thursday.
However, radical leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who also condemned the attack, pressed on with his campaigning, saying “the violent must be shown that they will not have the last word against republicans.”

Le Pen’s fiery message has found resonance, to the surprise of some, with younger voters. As Trump has done, Le Pen has manage to stir fear that is disproportionate to the number of foreigners:

In fact, France has received far fewer migrants per capita in recent years than many European nations. The foreign-born share of France’s overall population has risen relatively slowly, amounting to about 12 percent of the country last year — compared with 10 percent in 2000.
Economists also cast doubt on the idea that immigrants undercut the ability of the French to find work, noting that new arrivals often do the jobs that native-born workers refuse.
But the perception of an influx that is harming French workers — especially the young as they try to get their footing in an economy still badly bruised from the Great Recession — has persisted and is a key component of the National Front’s rhetoric.

The comparison to the United States is striking. But France is France, not the United States. Moreover, since Brexit, the far right in Europe has been dealt some setbacks. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party recently won regional elections, and in the Netherlands, the right-wing, anti-Muslim gadfly Geert Wilders was beaten soundly. In Austrian and Italian elections, the far right also did poorly.

Confronted with the reality of leaving the E.U., French voters have to come to terms with the possibility that “Le Pen’s dreams of leaving the E.U. and the euro [zone] would wipe out voters’ savings and devastate the economy,” The Associated Press reported. As AP explained:

Independent  centrist Emmanuel Macron is framing himself as a bulwark against the nationalism and protectionism of Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia. “The world around us is changing. War, terrorist threat, the uncertainty on the other side of the ocean (a reference to Trump), the threat at our borders of several authoritarian regimes. Yes, we will have to be strong, uncompromising,” Macron told a big campaign rally Monday.

Moreover, it’s far from clear that Trump’s stumbling performance in his first 100 days serves as a positive inducement to go down the road of xenophobic nationalism. In the real world, the Stephen K. Bannon/Le Pen approach doesn’t work out all that well:

The Trump presidency has shown that implementing populist promises isn’t as easy as it seems. And Trump’s own reversals have frustrated Le Pen.
“We have seen that Trump’s latest positions are so contrary to what Marine Le Pen had hoped,” said Thierry de Montbrial, president of the French Institute of International Relations. Nationalist candidates “no longer recognize themselves” in Trump anymore.
Le Pen distanced herself from Trump after the U.S. missile strikes on Syria earlier this month, angry that he is trying to be “the world’s policeman.”
Trump’s reversal on NATO — which he once called obsolete — also frustrates Le Pen. She wants to pull France out of its command structure and sees the alliance as an unnecessary threat to Russia now that the Soviet Union is defunct.

Sunday’s voting will narrow the field to two candidates, with the runoff to come on May 7.

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Joshua Muravchik and Jeffrey Gedmin recently wrote: “The sky is not falling yet. But were today’s E.U. to break apart, expect a surge of protectionism, illiberal nationalism and anti-American sentiment in pockets across the continent. Count on even greater Russian assertiveness in Europe in backing anti-democratic forces. Moscow is the source of none of these unfortunate trends, but it has shown itself eager to support and promote all of them.”

Americans and citizens of other NATO countries who believe that the West’s future rests with the transatlantic alliance, democracy norms, tolerance, free trade, free press (the media, in the eyes of the right-wing populists are, as Bannon put it, the “opposition party,” if not enemies of the state) and opposition to rogue states such as Russia therefore have much at stake on Sunday.