The weaknesses of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen were on full display on Wednesday in her nearly three-hour debate with French President Emmanuel Macron. Two issues in particular show how difficult it is for Le Pen to be a mainstream candidate: her close ties to Russia and her disdain for religious liberty for minority groups.
Le Pen, like many right-wing nationalists around the globe, has long been sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Worse, her party helped finance her last presidential campaign in 2017 with a loan it received in 2014 from a Russian bank, which it still has not paid off.
Macron was ferocious on the issue, attacking Le Pen for attempting to soften her pro-Russian tendencies. He said Le Pen’s positions today are contrary to her party’s “historical positions” and noted her refusal to condemn the annexation of Crimea in 2014. On her outstanding loan, he went for the jugular: “When you talk to Russia, you’re talking to your banker.” He added, “As soon as there are important and courageous decisions that need to be made, neither you nor your leaders are there.”
Whether this will be a decisive issue in the election’s second round of voting on Sunday remains to be seen, as the contest is dominated by pocketbook issues such as energy prices and inflation. Nevertheless, it should be a red flag for right-wing nationalists in other countries who previously aligned themselves with Putin.
That includes former president Donald Trump, who supported Le Pen in 2017. He will never be able to disown his pro-Putin fawning while in office or his attempt to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his own political gain. And he certainly will never be able to get past his praise for Putin — whom he called “savvy” and a “genius” — during the opening days of Russia’s brutal attack against Ukraine.
As horrifying images emerge depicting the torture and mass killing of civilians in Ukrainian cities, Trump’s identity as a Putin sycophant underscores his total lack of empathy. He might try to whitewash his conduct with docile right-wing media hosts, but there’s no shortage of video showing his Putin worshiping. How do Republicans — or any other party that has gone the route of authoritarian nationalism — explain that?
Le Pen also tripped herself up while promoting her proposal to ban Muslim women from wearing hijabs in public, falsely declaring that any woman wearing the headscarf does so against her will. Among the many problems with such an edict is that it would ban all such religious garb in public. The Times of Israel reported that “her plans to curtail religious freedoms to counteract the presence of Islam in French society would mean a ban on wearing headscarves and kippahs worn by Jews, she has acknowledged. She invited French Jews to make that ‘sacrifice’ for their country.”
Unsurprisingly, that caused a furor in the French Jewish community. The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, which lobbies the government on issues of concern to France’s small Jewish population, endorsed Macron. That move divided the Jewish community, which includes some Le Pen supporters. (She has tried to appeal to them with her virulent anti-Muslim positions.)
Le Pen and her supporters have tried to downplay the issue in recent days. But Macron used the issue against her at Wednesday’s debate, declaring she was ushering in a “civil war.” “France, the home of the Enlightenment and universalism, will become the first country in the world to ban religious symbols in public spaces. That’s what you’re proposing. It doesn’t make sense.” He reiterated: “You would have police running down the street after girls in headscarves and [Jewish] boys wearing the kippah.”
This, too, might not be of high concern to most French voters, but Le Pen’s effort to backpedal suggests she thinks the issue might hurt her. It also serves as a reminder that right-wing nationalism is seeped in bigotry, fueling the ongoing assault on pluralism, self-determination and nonconformity. Anyone who does not meet the nationalists’ racial, ethnic or religious definition of what it means to be a member of their society is at risk of being targeted.
Many Americans until recently believed their country was somehow exempt from the radical “isms” and the religious battles that have afflicted Europe. The Trump era put an end to the delusion that it “could never happen here.” It can, which is why it is essential to keep an eye on how right-wing counterparts of the MAGA movement navigate around their weak points and attempt to file down the rough edges of their thuggish profiles.