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French pre-election climate mirrors run-up to Trump victory

© Olivier Morin, AFP | A bride posing for photographs in front of the Eiffel Tower on April 26 at Trocadero plaza walks past graffiti reading, "Neither Le Pen, nor Macron".

Now in the final stretch before a decisive May 7 presidential vote, France is seeing parallels with the political mood in the United States just before the November upset that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency.

The results of France’s April 23 first round closely reflected what the polls had predicted: Macron and Le Pen both advanced to the final round, with 24 percent and 21.3 percent of the vote, respectively. The National Front had never before garnered more than 20 percent of a presidential vote in France, marking a resurgence of right-wing appeal. Slightly more than 22 percent of voters abstained in the first round, the highest abstention rate France has seen since 2002.

A resurgent right, a divided left

On both sides of the Atlantic, a newly galvanised far right has made it more likely than ever that an anti-immigration candidate might triumph due to the widespread abstention of many on the left, who were bitterly disappointed that their chosen candidate did not make it to the final round. Many Bernie Sanders supporters in the United States were angry that Hillary Clinton won the primary to become the Democratic candidate, accusing the party of favouritism and rejecting Clinton as part of the entrenched political establishment. A month before the November vote, a YouGov/Economist poll found that only 60 percent of Sanders supporters said they would back Clinton. Some later transferred their loyalties to long-shot Green Party candidate Jill Stein – others even voted for Trump.

Across France, supporters of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon are still feeling the sting of defeat after their candidate was eliminated in the first round despite taking 19.6 percent of the vote, his strongest showing ever. Mélenchon’s populist, shake-things-up message had appealed to many young people, and his candidacy offered a refuge for those on the left who are fed up with the ruling Socialists (the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, won only slightly more than 6 percent of the vote, a resounding rejection of politics-as-usual).

As the country gears up for the final round of voting, there is a push by Mélenchon supporters to either abstain or to cast a “Vote Blanc”, which allows French voters to cast a blank ballot in protest against their options. The hashtags #SansMoiLe7Mai (May7WithoutMe) and #VoteBlanc have appeared on Twitter to unite these "Ni … ni" (Neither … nor) voters.

Mélenchon himself, meanwhile, has broken with longstanding leftist tradition in declining to endorse Macron, even to keep Le Pen from power.

Like Trump, the National Front could find itself sailing to victory on a wave of leftist discontent. Harris Interactive and Opinionway polls foresee an eventual win for Macron with around 60 percent of the vote, although his lead is slipping. But such decisive numbers might also lure many on the left into believing that they can afford to vote “blanc” to convey their general displeasure.

@mouradb6813 @EmmanuelMacron La seule chose que je peux te dire c’est que c’est l’abstention qui a fait gagner Trump (45%)

— MathiasP ???? (@MathiasPangeois) April 26, 2017

A recent editorial in French daily Le Monde warned against complacency in assuming that Le Pen cannot win. “The very worst scenario – and the most dangerous and irresponsible one for the future of France – would be to assume that an eventual Macron victory was a certitude,” the paper said.

It was dividing and conquering the left, after all, that helped Trump pull off his own Election Day surprise. In the key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump’s margin of victory was less than the number of votes that went to the Green Party’s Stein. If Clinton had carried those states, she would have won the presidency.

Much like Trump’s support base, advocates of Le Pen are exhilarated that their once-fringe candidate has made it to the final round and are expected to vote en masse.

Conversely, independent centrist Macron has not managed to fire up the public – leaving many of his potential backers feeling lukewarm about casting their votes.

Theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine, founder of the Théâtre du Soleil, expressed the view of many in comments to FRANCE 24 at a May Day rally on Monday.

“The situation is very, very serious, there is a real danger,” said Mnouchkine, 78. “We will vote for Macron, not because we like his programme [but] because he is much preferable to something that would be a shame and a catastrophe for France, for Europe and for the world.”

Dubbed "Macreux", or Mister Hollow, the En Marche! (Forward!) candidate has been criticised for not clearly communicating what he stands for – with some observers now warning that being the "anti-Le Pen" candidate may not be enough to guarantee Macron a victory.

Clinton faced a similar challenge, with some observers saying that she struggled to find her voice and that her campaign did not succeed in outlining a clear vision to energise otherwise reluctant voters.

Russian hacking

Both Le Pen and Trump have vowed to take a more nationalist approach to foreign policy that puts issues of sovereignty front and centre, with Le Pen even threatening to hold a referendum on EU membership. And both have suggested that NATO is obsolete. In a November interview with the BBC, Le Pen said NATO had lost its raison d’être.

“NATO continues to exist even though the danger for which it was created no longer exists,” said Le Pen, laughing off the idea that Moscow poses a threat to Europe. “What is NATO protecting us against, exactly? Against a military attack from Russia?” she asked incredulously.

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Le Pen to the Kremlin on her visit to Moscow in March. "I long have called for Russia and France to restore their cultural, economic and strategic ties, especially now when we are facing a serious threat from terrorism," Le Pen said in talks with the Russian leader.

Le Pen also criticised the EU sanctions against Russia on her Moscow trip, calling them “counter-productive”.

For his part, Putin said Le Pen represented a "quickly developing spectrum of European political forces" – new political forces that perhaps cater better to Russian interests than the old guard.

Macron shares the dubious distinction with Clinton of having been targeted by the Russian hacking collective Pawn Storm (also known as Fancy Bear, Strontium or the Sofacy Group). In a report released in late April, Japanese cyber-security firm Trend Micro noted that the group’s goal appeared to be to hack into the accounts of senior Macron campaign officials to access its email exchanges – similar to what was done to the Clinton campaign, whose emails were subsequently leaked by Wikileaks.

Responding to the report, Macron’s campaign confirmed that it had been the target of at least five advanced cyber-attack operations since January. The campaign maintained, however, that the attacks had failed to gain access to any sensitive data.

"Emmanuel Macron is the only candidate in the French presidential campaign to be targeted," said a statement from En Marche!, adding: "It’s no coincidence that Emmanuel Macron, the only remaining progressive candidate in this election, is the priority target."

"We are 99 percent sure that the attacks come from Russia," said Loïc Guézo, Trend Micro’s strategy director for southern Europe, in comments to FRANCE 24’s tech editor Sébastien Seibt.

The Kremlin dismissed the report. Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Monday that Russia “never interfered” in foreign elections.

Macron’s campaign took counter measures last week, denying press access to two Russian state media outlets, RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik, accusing them of disseminating “propaganda” and “misleading” information.

On message

The remaining French candidates recently unveiled new slogans as they revamped their campaign messages in the run-up to the decisive second round of voting.

Le Pen revealed new National Front posters on Wednesday exhorting voters to “Choose France”, striking a nationalistic note similar to the “America First” rallying cry heard on the Trump campaign trail. The choice of catchphrase also reflects her ambition to "Make France great again".

Macron’s riposte – also unveiled on Wednesday – was to declare, “[Come] Together, France!” His is an inclusive message that rejects the xenophobic rhetoric of Le Pen, much as Clinton denounced Trump’s anti-immigrant bombast with a slogan underscoring that the United States would be “Stronger Together”.

So far the polls still overwhelmingly favour Macron, who appears well positioned to take the presidency. But given the surprise outcomes from the Brexit and US votes, there are no guarantees – legions of voters disenfranchised by the political system seem newly attracted to the extremes that promise to upend the status quo.

Date created : 2017-05-02