France's far-right National Front made remarkable gains in regional elections on Sunday, winning close to 30 percent of the national vote and consigning the ruling Socialists of President Francois Hollande to a dispiriting third place in the polls. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, hailed the result as a rejection of "the old political world."
While France's dazed Socialists and center-right parties will hope to peg back the National Front in an upcoming second round of elections, Le Pen's credentials ahead of 2017 presidential elections look all the more burnished.
To many, though, her ascension is profoundly disturbing. The National Front is a party still known for its xenophobia and wider links to the rhetoric and politics of European neo-fascism. Le Pen, 46, has struggled to move the party out of the shadow of its controversial (and rather racist) founder, her octogenarian father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
But, as the election results show, Le Pen has capitalized on very real fears and frustrations among France's electorate. The aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, carried out by Islamist assailants linked to the Islamic State, buoyed the National Front. The party has long maintained a conspicuously anti-immigration line and campaigns aggressively on the question of Muslim integration and the threat of Islamist infiltration.
To be sure, as my colleague Rick Noack noted on Monday, the party also gained massively because of France's economic woes. Entrenched unemployment and fatigue with the Paris establishment has steadily driven white working class voters to its ranks. But the French election took place amid a steady drumbeat of Islamophobia as well.
In the run-up to the vote, Le Pen's party ran polarizing ads like this one below, warning of the possibility of an Islamist takeover. This was a tactic that likely had real effect: According to a Pew survey earlier this year, some 67 percent of French citizens polled said they were "very concerned" about the rise of Islamic extremism.
These trends are being strongly echoed in the United States. Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, in particular, has sought to harness American fears over the Islamist threat. On Monday, he called for a total "shutdown" on arrivals of Muslims into the United States, an incredibly inflammatory and impractical policy that led to almost immediate condemnation from his political rivals.
The statement, though, was in keeping with Trump's controversial rhetorical style, as a New York Times analysis spells out:
The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use, based on a quantitative comparison of his remarks and the news conferences of recent presidents, Democratic and Republican. He has a particular habit of saying “you” and “we” as he inveighs against a dangerous “them” or unnamed other — usually outsiders like illegal immigrants (“they’re pouring in”), Syrian migrants (“young, strong men”) and Mexicans, but also leaders of both political parties.
This is hardly a new brand of politics, notes Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia and an authority on extremist and populist political movements in Europe. Mudde briefly spoke to WorldViews on the contrast between Trump and the ascendant far-right across the pond.
"I see the phenomena as very similar. Trump is the functional equivalent of the far-right in Europe, he performs the same functions in the political system, and attracts the same kind of support," said Mudde, who described the support base broadly as "white, nativist, lower-educated and very unhappy with the establishment."
But there are key differences, says Mudde. Trump is not beholden to a political party like Le Pen and, despite his remarks, is not consistently ideological in the fashion of the National Front and other far-right political parties in Europe.
"Trump as a politician is nothing like Marie Le Pen," said Mudde. "He's much more of a one-man show, with an idiosyncratic agenda." In that sense, Mudde adds, Trump is more similar to Italy's former leader, Silvio Berlusconi, a controversial and outspoken media magnate-turned-politician.
Journalist and commentator Rula Jebreal unpacked that comparison earlier this year in PostEverything:
Like Berlusconi in Italy, Trump has built a political campaign employing unvarnished language and jaundiced humor, which has succeeded in the United States, a country that — embarrassingly — ranks second among wealthy industrialized nations, only behind Italy, in terms of being uninformed on key issues of the world. ... Trump’s political path has been carved by a media culture that favors entertainment over news. ... Like Berlusconi, Trump has already succeeded in making himself the center of the conversation.
Of course, anti-immigrant and xenophobic politics have a long tradition in the United States. "What is new," says Mudde, "is the vulgar and almost unlimited way Trump expresses his nativism." That rings true in the wake of the Republican front-runner's latest remarks, which have yet again returned him to the center of the conversation.
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