by Chantal Hebert
It is a sign of the times that a Canadian prime minister and an American president are cheering for different candidates in the upcoming second round of France’s presidential election – and that their contrary preferences are so transparent.
Donald Trump has all but given Marine Le Pen a formal endorsement. In an interview with The Associated Press just ahead of Sunday’s first-round vote, he described the leader of France’s far right party as the “strongest on borders, and the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” Their history is one of reciprocal admiration.
Trump likes the National Front’s anti-immigration bias, its anti-free-trade stance and its determination to have France follow the United Kingdom out of the European Union. So did about one in five French voters. On Sunday they helped Le Pen secure the second place with 21.3 per cent of the vote and a spot on the May 7 final round of voting.
Le Pen has been one of the president’s most vocal European cheerleaders. She believed his victory, coming as it did on the heels of the U.K. vote to leave the European Union, would give her campaign a big boost. It did not really turn out that way. Sunday’s score was the best National Front showing in a presidential vote, but it fell short of the big breakthrough the far-right party had hoped for.
If this vote offered a measure of sorts of Trump’s populist coattails, those have been shrinking over his first 100 days in office.
Justin Trudeau has been discreet about the French presidential contest. But it goes without saying that the prime minister has no time for Le Pen. She has few fans among Canada’s mainstream politicians.
It was considered a given that she would make it to the second round of voting. Until Sunday, it was not clear which of the other three main contenders in the French election battle would face off against the National Front leader in the make-or-break May vote.
From Trudeau’s perspective, the first-round victory of centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron – with 24 per cent of the vote – and the probability that he will be the next French president is a win-win.
Fewer than three percentage points separated Macron from his National Front rival in the first round. But that narrow margin is misleading. The anybody-but-Le Pen vote is projected to propel Macron to a decisive victory on May 7.
If those projections pan out in two weeks, Trudeau will gain a like-minded ally in a strategic position on the international game board.
Macron resigned from France’s socialist government to create his centrist En Marche movement less than a year ago. He campaigned on a pro-EU platform. On issues ranging from diversity to immigration, national security and the balance between the mitigation of climate change and the need for industrial development, he and Trudeau essentially sing from the same hymn book. There are other similarities. The presidential favourite is only 39 years old. Both he and Trudeau are rising stars of the new guard that is (belatedly) taking over from the baby-boomer generation. The contrast with Trump (and the rest of the recent American presidential slate) could not be more striking.
Macron built his victory on the ruins of the two parties that have successively run France for three decades. He campaigned as an outsider. Neither of the candidates running for France’s main parties qualified for the second round. BenoÎt Hamon, who carried the banner of the incumbent Socialists, lost with barely 6 per cent of the vote. Trudeau, by comparison, leads the Canadian party that has spent the most time in power federally. He could be described as an insider by birth. But both he and Macron beat long odds to vault to the front of the pack, and each campaigned on a variation of sunny ways.
Macron was the only presidential candidate to openly support CETA, the Canada-EU free trade agreement negotiated under Stephen Harper and subsequently nurtured by the Trudeau government. It still has to clear some hurdles before it is cast in stone. With Macron in the ElysÈe, the odds of that happening would be better.
A note in closing: Quebec’s Parti Quebecois spent decades nurturing the goodwill of France’s traditional parties for the province’s independence project. Based on Sunday’s vote, that section of its sovereignty infrastructure has also not aged well.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services