Sunday 17 December 2017

Mary Fitzgerald: Le Pen hoping 'Breitbart effect' will help capture French voters

Far-right National Front party leader and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, Marine Le Pen, visits a Christmas market in Paris as she continues her quest to win over voters before the people of France vote in April
Far-right National Front party leader and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, Marine Le Pen, visits a Christmas market in Paris as she continues her quest to win over voters before the people of France vote in April

Mary Fitzgerald

When the votes for the next US president were being counted on election night last month, there was an interesting foreign guest inside Trump Tower in New York.

Ludovic De Danne, international affairs director for France's far-right National Front, mingled with Donald Trump's inner circle as news of his victory trickled in.

Mr De Danne's boss - National Front leader Marine Le Pen - was one of the first European politicians to congratulate Mr Trump, whose win she hopes to emulate when France goes to the polls to elect a new president next April. His election victory, she later said, was "good news for our country".

It is striking how much Mr Trump and Ms Le Pen echo each other's rhetoric: both rail against immigration and globalisation; blame 'elites' for all that ails their respective countries; talk of fostering closer links with Moscow (the National Front has taken loans from Russian banks); and welcome Britain's departure from the EU, which Ms Le Pen hopes will trigger a domino effect across the continent. They have both stoked anti-Muslim sentiment in their campaigns, with Ms Le Pen exploiting the terrorist attacks in France over the past year for political advantage in a country that is home to Europe's largest Muslim population.

"A new world is emerging, global equilibriums are being redefined by the fact of Trump's election," Ms Le Pen said at a press conference the day after the election. Her closest adviser tweeted: "Their world is crumbling, ours is being built."

After Mr Trump's win, the question of whether Ms Le Pen has a chance of being elected president next year is no longer dismissed outright. While some French insist that history shows that while National Front candidates may gain in the first round, they lose in the second round run-off due to tactical voting aimed at keeping them out, others warn that nothing can be taken for granted.

Most polls suggest Ms Le Pen will fare very well, securing at least one-quarter of ballots in the first round, and possibly more than that in the second, but that most voters will eventually plump for the establishment right-wing candidate and former prime minister Francois Fillon.

Asked in a recent interview with 'Time' magazine what she would say to people who say it is impossible for the National Front to win a French presidential election, she replied: "I think the British with Brexit, then the Americans with the election of Donald Trump, did that: They made possible the impossible."

No doubt her campaign team will be taking lessons from Mr Trump's circle, given the existing ties between the two.

Her niece, parliamentarian Marion Marechal-Le Pen, has said there have been contacts "for some time" between the party and the Trump campaign. Furthermore, the right-wing US website Breitbart, whose incendiary commentary on immigration, race and "elites" has made it popular with white supremacists, plans to launch a French version in January, just as the presidential election campaigning kicks in. Stephen Bannon, now Mr Trump's chief White House strategist and until recently the head of Breitbart, told French media last summer: "We think France is the place to be" and he lauded the 26-year-old Marechal-Le Pen as a "rising star". Days after Trump's election, Marechal-Le Pen tweeted: "I answer yes to the invitation of Stephen Bannon, CEO of @realDonaldTrump presidential campaign, to work together" and later described "alternative media" like Breitbart as "useful tools".

Breitbart's editor-in-chief, Alexander Marlow, has made no secret of the fact its expansion in Europe is linked to elections next year in France and Germany, where it also plans to launch a German version. Breitbart started a British spin-off in 2014 after seeing a "business opportunity" in the push for Brexit, he told the 'New York Times'. Mr Marlow talks of an "under-served readership" as populism grows in Europe. "It's the same readers who had been ignored in Britain and had been ignored in the United States," he said of their target audience.

Some question how the Breitbart formula, bankrolled by private funders who were also major donors to Mr Trump's campaign, will translate in France. The French media scene is relatively staid, with nothing like the tabloid press that drove the Brexit campaign in Britain. In recent years, however, a number of small right-wing websites have popped up, but the provocative style of Breitbart would be very different.

Key to Ms Le Pen's growing popularity is her attempt to make the National Front - founded by her father Jean-Marie - more acceptable to mainstream voters once repulsed by the explicit anti-Semitism and racism that defined the party under her father's leadership.

How the Breitbart effect could work for or against her remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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