The media are framing the defeat of Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election as a defeat for President Donald Trump and his brand of populist nationalism. The Washington Post reported that “France on Sunday shrugged off the siren call of right-wing populism that enchanted voters in the United States and the United Kingdom” and called the election of centrist Emmanuel Macron “a pointed endorsement of European unity.”
No, it wasn’t.
The French vote was not an endorsement of globalism or a vote of confidence in the French political establishment. It was a rejection of Len Pen’s toxic brand of Putinism and anti-Semitism. And the person who should be happiest that Le Pen lost is Trump. She would have been not an ally, but rather, an albatross for the president, because Le Pen was the left wing’s caricature of Trump come to life.
Since Trump’s election, Democrats have tried to paint him as Vladimir Putin’s handpicked president, but in its first months in office the Trump administration has been downright hostile to Russia. Not only did Trump launch missile strikes against Putin’s ally in Syria, Bashar Assad, but also his administration has demanded that Russia leave Ukraine, criticized Putin for reportedly violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, accused Russia of arming the Taliban in Afghanistan and blamed Putin for Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declaring “either Russia has been complicit or has been simply incompetent on its ability to deliver” on Syria’s disarmament.
Le Pen would not have given Putin such a cold shoulder. Unlike Trump, she is openly allied with the Russian autocrat. According to the BBC, “In 2014, the National Front took Russian loans worth $12 million. One of the loans, for $9.9 million, came from a small bank, First Czech Russian Bank, with links to the Kremlin.” The loan came at precisely the same time as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which the BBC notes Le Pen supported, “leading some to question whether the loans were a quid-pro-quo.” Then, just weeks before French voters went to the polls for the election’s first round, Le Pen met with Putin in Moscow, where she reportedly criticized European Union sanctions on Russia as “unfair and silly.” As president, Le Pen would almost have certainly have been the Putin puppet that Trump has not been.
Then there is the cloud of anti-Semitism that hangs over Le Pen’s National Front. At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum National Days of Remembrance ceremony, Trump delivered a strong denunciation of Holocaust denial, declaring that “there are even those filled with such hate, total hate, that they want to erase the Holocaust from history. Those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil.”
One of those “accomplices” is Le Pen’s father, who as leader of the National Front dismissed the gas chambers of the Holocaust as a “detail” of history and declared that the Nazi occupation of France was “not particularly inhuman.” Marine Le Pen called another anti-Semitic remark of his a mere “political gaffe” and distanced the party from her radioactive father in a campaign of what she called “dédiabolisation” (or “un-demonizing”) to bring it into the political mainstream.
But recent reminders of the National Front’s anti-Semitism almost certainly depressed her vote. After winning a spot in the presidential runoff in April, Le Pen handed the reins of the party to Jean-François Jalkh, her handpicked successor, who was then forced to step down days later when it emerged that he had praised a Holocaust denier and declared it was “impossible” for the Nazis to have used Zyklon B gas to kill Jews. Le Pen defended him and called the charges a “defamation.”
And there was also Le Pen’s own “gaffe” when she declared that “I don’t think that France is responsible for the Vél d’Hiv” - the infamous 1942 roundup by French police of 13,000 Paris Jews who were interned in a stadium near the Eiffel Tower before being deported to concentration camps. The arrests were carried out not by Nazi occupiers, but by the French themselves. For Marine Le Pen to deny French complicity in this “detail” of the Holocaust suggests that the apple did not fall far from the tree.
There is a big difference between American-style populism and the virulent strain that exists on the European continent. So it is a mistake to read the French election as a rejection of Trump or his agenda. French voters did not cast their ballots for open borders and global supranationalism - rather, they rejected the National Front with all its racist baggage.
This is why Le Pen’s defeat is good news for Trump. His adversaries at home would have used Le Pen’s ascendance to tarnish him by association. She would have done more damage to his cause in the Élysée Palace than anything Macron might do.
In Le Pen’s defeat, Trump dodged a bullet. Quelle chance!
Thiessen is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush.