Americans have a long and ignoble tradition of telling jokes about the French. Old chestnuts such as “I’m selling a French rifle: Never shot, dropped only once” became popular again in 2003 when the French — wisely as it turns out — refused to join their U.S. allies in the invasion of Iraq. The House of Representatives cafeteria even renamed French fries, “freedom fries.”
Turns out the joke’s on us.
The American electorate in November chose as our president an international laughingstock who is ignorant and impetuous, his chief saving grace being that his extremism is tempered by his incompetence.
By contrast, on Sunday, the French electorate decisively defeated Marine Le Pen, who trafficked in the same sort of racist and xenophobic rhetoric that Donald Trump rode to the White House. The winner by a landslide was Emmanuel Macron, who is young (at only 39, he is the youngest leader France has had since Napoleon), telegenic, intelligent and resolutely centrist. (Maybe the French should now, as suggested by Michael Tomasky, start calling steak well done with ketchup —Trump’s preference — bifteck a l’Americaine.
It is telling that, while Barack Obama endorsed Macron, Trump openly pulled for Le Pen. It didn’t matter to him (or was he simply unaware?) that she and her National Front party have a long history of anti-Semitism, racism, anti-Americanism, pro-Putinism and Holocaust denial. Le Pen has tried to clean up her act in public, but her mask slipped when she denied Vichy France’s complicity in the deportation of French Jews to the concentration camps. She remains surrounded, according to one of her former advisors, by “real Nazis.”
That did not deter Trump from delivering a quasi-endorsement. After a terrorist attack in Paris just before the first round of voting, Trump tweeted: “Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!” He told the Associated Press: “I think that it’ll probably help her because she is the strongest on borders and she is the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”
This turned out to be wishful thinking. The terrorist attack did not help Le Pen’s cause. Neither did the transparent attempts of the Russian intelligence services to target Macron the way they had targeted Hillary Clinton. Friday night, 9 gigabytes of stolen emails and documents from the Macron campaign appeared online on the 4Chan website favored by the alt right, soon to be picked up by WikiLeaks, the Kremlin’s bulletin board of choice. The digital fingerprints of Fancy Bear, the nickname for a group of Russian intelligence hackers, were reportedly all over this operation. Funny how pro-Kremlin candidates never seem to get hacked.
It was too little, too late. In fact, because of a French blackout of election-related news the day before and the day of an election, all that voters knew was that someone — almost certainly someone in Moscow — was trying to sabotage the Macron campaign. The French were mercifully spared the kind of credulous reporting on the contents of the leak that occurred in the United States, where news outlets used Kremlin-provided documents to embarrass and distract the Clinton campaign. The French were smarter than we were: They did not let Vladimir Putin cast a ballot in their election.
In fairness, however, France, and indeed the whole world, benefited from watching what happened in the United States. Our presidential election made clear that populist-nationalist extremists are a serious threat — they can actually take power. Voters elsewhere have been forewarned and forearmed, which surely helped to account for the failure of ultra-nationalist candidates in the Austrian, Dutch and now French elections. Once a shining city on a hill, America is now an example of what not to do.
That France rejected Le Pen, and so decisively, is a welcome message that the center, socially liberal but market-oriented, can still hold in spite of the disorienting disturbances wrought in all modern societies by the forces of automation, immigration, de-industrialization, globalization and multiculturalism — all phenomena that are particularly disruptive to poorer, less-educated voters. But to hold extremism at bay, Macron will have to prove a more effective president than the Socialist he once served and now replaces — Francois Hollande.
France must still deal with a large, unassimilated class of Muslim immigrants who are prey to crime and terrorism; with unsustainable levels of government spending (57% of GDP); high unemployment (10.1% overall; 23.7% among the young); and crippling regulations, such as a 35-hour workweek, that hold back the economy (1.1% growth last year). Macron will somehow have to cut government spending and taxes, loosen regulations and enhance assimilation. If he does not succeed, rest assured that either Le Pen or some other demagogue will arise in the future.
But for now at least the danger of an illiberal rabble-rouser taking office has been averted in France — if not, alas, here.