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Europe’s America: The Rise of Populism

Over the course of the last few months, the entire world has waited with bated breath for the results of the US elections. As a result, elections in other countries appear to have taken a back seat. But with the French presidential elections scheduled for April and May of 2017, it is essential to give some thought to who will lead one of the major European and world powers come this spring. Poll numbers suggest that current president François Hollande is facing credible opposition from the leader of the right-wing party The National Front, Marine Le Pen. In fact, Le Pen’s party controls 20 percent of the total votes nationwide and 96 percent of The National Front constituency has expressed support for her as a candidate. Poll numbers show her a likely candidate for the second round of the elections. Given this context, the prospect of a Le Pen presidency and its implications on the national and global stage cannot be ignored. Perhaps more importantly, in the light of the rise of Trumpist conservatism in the United States, this prospect can’t be dissociated from global trends.

Disconcertingly, there are several reason Le Pen could be labeled France’s own Trump. For one, Le Pen has repeatedly voiced her support for Trump and his militant anti-immigration policy. She wants to drastically reduce legal immigration to a quota of 10,000 annually, a radical change from current President Francois Hollande’s policy of providing asylum to over 30,000 political refugees. She wants to end provisions for those that seek asylum and family reunification, whom she labels as “those who wish to impose a change on our behavior and our lives.” While Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric was initially met with mixed reviews both nationally and internationally, a similar anti-immigration stance gave Le Pen a clear boost in domestic popularity amidst serious extenuating circumstances – her rating in the polls rose four percentage points to an unprecedented 28 percent after the Nice attack, in which a delivery man killed 84 people when he drove his truck through a crowd. The positive reception of Le Pen’s divisive and provocative rhetoric is better understood in the context of the criticism directed at Hollande for not sufficiently responding to the Nice attack as well as to the ISIL terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 that left 130 dead. And although there is some acknowledgement of the underlying Islamophobia of Le Pen’s policy positions, her staunch anti-immigration stance remains one of her major selling points. While Trump’s recent victory gives low-income, unskilled workers false hope of regaining lost jobs, his continued desire for a Muslim registry and a restriction of H-1B visas threatens large corporations such as Google, whose own CEO is an Indian immigrant. Technology companies in Sillicon Valley have been pushing for granting citizenship for its immigrants to ensure permanent employment, but there is no doubt that Trump represents wide insecurity for the 315,000 foreign workers on the H-1B visa who have been employed in the US since 2014. These uncertainties do not set a favorable precedent for immigrants in France.

Le Pen’s appeal is often rationalized against the backdrop of economic failures, ISIL-generated violence and mass unemployment in a continent where populism is gaining interest. As the French public grows weary of Hollande’s economic miscalculations and stagnant political response to terrorist attacks, Le Pen’s xenophobic and protectionist right-wing ideas become tempting. Hollande’s efforts to please such national sentiment by pushing for a law that deprives convicted terrorists of their citizenship has only alienated his supporters and made his policies seem weak and inconsistent. His attempt to reform the labor market by giving employers more flexibility to fire employees during economic contraction has only increased social backlash. With unemployment at a stubborn 10 percent and youth unemployment at 24 percent during his administration, a majority of the young population felt isolated by this recent development. Hundreds of students led multiple demonstrations across France in protest. In this unstable economic environment, Le Pen’s more extreme and liberal approach to “quit the euro” has made an impression with the disillusioned public. As problems surfacing with migrants trying to cross the Channel into England through Calais and economic backlash after the Eurozone crisis, many people believe that the EU is responsible for a majority of France’s difficulties. They are convinced that quitting the euro will return jobs to the French people, reduce the perceived negative impact of globalization and bring a rejuvenated spirit to nationalism.

Another of Le Pen’s popular policies is her anti-European Union stance: She believes that the European Union has enforced unnecessary administration and bureaucracy, at the expense of France’s national sovereignty. In June 2014, she co-sponsored a resolution to dissolve the EU and she continues to call for the return to national currencies. The notorious Brexit vote has sparked calls from Le Pen and her supporters for a ‘Frexit’, (which has produced the nickname ‘Madame Frexit’). Although the majority of the French public would vote to remain in the EU if a referendum were to be held, recent polls show that more than 60 percent of French people disapprove of the EU. With Le Pen declaring that she would hold a referendum within six months of her appointment, the possibility of her presidency has invoked a larger ideological struggle between sovereignty and unity within the European community. Trump has similarly voiced his support for Brexit and the antiglobalist movement, claiming that the United States has aggressively pursued the “false song of globalism” for far too long. He’s made sweeping claims that resonate closely with Le Pen’s ideologies, including destroying the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and placing ‘conditions’ on aiding NATO allies. Just as many Americans have bought into this nationalist sentiment in hopes for increased employment, many Frenchmen are attracted to Le Pen’s opposition to free markets and free trade. The rise of an anti-globalization movement threatens not only the political relations between countries but the larger social and economic world order as well.

Along the same lines of isolationist foreign policy, Le Pen supports withdrawal from NATO, which France had rejoined in 2009 after withdrawing in 1966. Not only would such a move be seriously detrimental to French relations with important Western allies, but it would also lead to a world where common markets and military unions are positioned as diametrically opposed to national sovereignty. Le Pen has shown disdain for the alliance between France and the United States, accusing Washington of involving France in wars in Afghanistan and Libya. The National Front website condemns the American “virtual takeover of Western Ukraine to ‘NATO-ise’ the country” and the “degree of penetration in the eastern Ukrainian political power”. Along with criticizing American policy, Le Pen and her party have repeatedly shown admiration for Vladimir Putin, praising the Russian annexation of Crimea as well as the controversial Russian policy in Syria, indicating support for stronger ties between France and Russia. The American campaign has seen a parallel of this pro-Russia, anti-NATO mentality with Trump. He has denied the Russian invasion of Ukraine and praised Putin’s leadership over Obama’s. In a press conference in July 2016 after the DNC email fiasco, he proposed that Russia directly cyber-attack the US elections. Given the lack of clarity around Trump’s foreign policy leanings and Le Pen’s clear interest in a Russian alliance, Russian influence over Western allies could potentially expand in the coming year. With historical and cultural ties between the two countries, France is becoming a soft target for Russia to increase its power over Europe.

The recent American elections thus have very important consequences for the French elections in 2017. A Trump victory has driven up support for Le Pen and her populist policies. After November 8, she took a clear lead in the presidential race, a whole eight points ahead of her rival, former President Nicholas Sarkozy. Le Pen herself was shocked by Trump’s victory, reaffirming that Trump’s win has “made possible what was presented as completely impossible.” According to Foreign Affairs, the recent rise in populism has also perpetuated the momentum of extreme movements in Europe, with right-wing populists doubling their share of politics and left-wing populists receiving a whopping fivefold increase since the 1960s. The National Front has profited from general dissatisfaction with the current economic and political situation, fears about immigration and security concerns. It is not hard to believe that this epidemic of fear could result in worldwide popularity for such xenophobic and extreme views, given how the US presidential election cycle has played out.




About the Author

Simran Nayak '20 is the Senior Managing Editor of the Brown Political Review website. Simran can be reached at