Americans had our comeuppance when we ridiculed the Brits for their foolish vote on Brexit. After the UK decided to break from the European Union, many Britons had “voter’s remorse.” Many didn’t really understand what they were voting for. It seemed a travesty – until November 8, 2016. On that day, many of us had to eat crow when we realized our nation had just elected an unstable, egotistical game show host as President of the United States.
Now the French are having their turn in the spotlight with a presidential election, and it feels to me like a bad case of deja vu. There are so many parallels between the 2016 American election and the upcoming contest in France.
As in America, there is no incumbent running for president. The two likely contenders are Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front party and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist “insider,” while in the wings there is a Bernie Sanders-like figure in Jean-Luc Melenchon, a leftist with rabid followers who likely will refuse to vote for the more centrist Macron, leaving Le Pen’s unlikely candidacy to imitate that of Donald Trump, the xenophobic outsider who wants to make their country great again.
The nationalist, anti-immigrant stance of Le Pen is similar to that of Trump’s. Like Trump, Le Pen is capitalizing on the sentiment that immigrants (mostly Muslim) are taking resources from hard-working Frenchmen, causing violence, and creating a clash of cultures. Her refusal to cover her head in a meeting with Lebanon’s highest religious leader solidified her support with the far right. She has also denied France’s complicity in sending thousands of Jews to their deaths during World War II.
Also as in the U.S. election, Russia is meddling with the French election. For example, Russian website Sputnik spread rumors that Le Pen’s likely opponent, Macron, is gay. Le Pen, for her part, paints Macron as a part of “the system” and vilifies his opinion that globalization is actually a good thing.
The white nationalist movement is growing in Europe, due in part to the refugee crisis and in part to the economic uncertainty of a rapidly changing, interdependent world. Leaders like Trump and Le Pen appeal to a “me first” mentality that causes people to hark back to an imagined simpler time when they and their country were considered strong and great.
Unfortunately, the isolationist tendency to retreat from the European Union and from trade treaties, to crack down on minorities and immigrants, and to scapegoat those who don’t fit a sanitized cultural mold won’t make our countries safer. Rather, such nationalism will create greater polarization, inequality, and radicalization, all of which will serve to destabilize our great democracies.
I hope France does not succumb to the politics of division and hate. But I am not optimistic. After all, this is a country whose cultural hero used to be Jerry Lewis.