An American in France: Why Did Marine Le Pen’s Trumpian Campaign Lose in a Landslide?

Date: Monday, May 8, 2017 6:41 PM
Category: Allgov Blogs

Marine Le Pen of the National Front party modeled her French presidential campaign after that of Donald Trump, yet she lost by a margin of 66% to 34%, a bigger landslide than in any presidential election in U.S. history, going back to the beginning of popular elections in 1824. So why did what worked for Trump in the United States fail in France?

 

I am an American citizen who votes in the United States. But I live part of the year in the South of France, and I followed closely the elections in both countries, noting the similarities and the differences.

 

Le Pen promised to protect the borders of her country against immigrants and terrorists. She promised to increase military spending. She promised to promote “economic patriotism,” putting French companies first when making government purchases. She stressed supporting the police in confrontations with minorities and to give them more and better weapons. She promised to deport all immigrants who broke the law. She presented herself as a defender of the working class against the rich. In the campaign brochure that was sent to all French voters, she even emphasized that Trump praised her as the best candidate for France.

 

Le Pen’s tactics were also the same as Trump’s. She launched personal attacks against her opponent, former economic minister Emmanuel Macron. She lied outright about statistics and suggested, without any evidence, that Macron had a bank account in the Bahamas. When confronted with her false statements regarding the national economy, she avoided answering by talking instead about immigrants and terrorism. And her supporters hacked into the emails and accounts of the Macron campaign and released them online.

 

So why did Americans elect Trump, while the French massively rejected Le Pen? Some say it’s because the French are less gullible than Americans. Some say it’s because Trump had a mainstream TV channel (Fox News) spreading his propaganda, whereas there is no such channel in France. Some say that Trump’s election served as a warning to the French. Although he campaigned as pro-worker, once he was in power, his policies helped the bankers and corporate leaders he had pretended to oppose. And some say that the vast majority of French voters rejected the National Front’s racist and anti-Semitic statements because, unlike Americans, the French experienced Nazism and Fascism first-hand.

 

All of this may be true, but I believe the differences in the French and American electoral systems played an important role.

 

Most Votes

In France, as in all leading democracies except the United States, whichever candidate earns the most votes, wins the election. In the United States, thanks to the Electoral College system, it is possible to finish in second place and end up in the White House anyway. In fact, this has happened in two of the last five elections.

 

Two-Round Elections

In France, any candidate who gains the signatures of 500 elected officials qualifies for the first round of the election. In 2017, there were 11 such candidates. The top two candidates in the first round advance to the runoff round. This allows for the airing of a refreshing variety of opinions. In the United States, the two major parties dominate all media coverage and even control the debates. Other parties don’t get covered. In France, neither of the two runoff candidates came from one of the two traditional, mainstream parties. In the United States, not one state has given a plurality to a third-party candidate in any of the last 12 presidential elections.

 

Who Debates

In France, there were three televised debates before the first round. One included only the five leading candidates, while the other two included all eleven candidates. In the United States, even though five candidates qualified for the ballot in enough states that they could, technically, have won the election, only the Republican and Democratic candidates were allowed to take part in the televised debates. Minor party candidates often espouse views that are, to put it politely, odd. But American voters should not be afraid to hear these views.

           

In France, one of the most memorable moments of the first-round debates was provided by one of the minor candidates, Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party. Marine Le Pen has been accused of misusing European Union funds to pay her National Front party staff. When summoned by the police, she refused to go. During the first debate in which he took part, Poutou turned to Le Pen and said, “For someone who is anti-European, it doesn’t stop her from stealing from Europe’s account. The National Front says it is anti-system, but it protects itself thanks to the laws of the system with its parliamentary immunity and refuses to answer police summonses. We, when we are summoned by the police, we don’t have working-class immunity; we just go.” It was the only time during the debate that the audience burst into spontaneous applause.

 

How are Debates Conducted

In French debates, each candidate has a timer. By the end of the debate, the moderators are expected to have allowed each candidate to speak for the same amount of time. In the United States, the candidates who are leading in the polls are allowed to speak longer than the other candidates. For example, at the first Democratic Party debate, hosted by CNN on October 13, 2015, the five candidates spoke for a total of 102 minutes. In France, each candidate would have been allotted 20 minutes. Instead, Hillary Clinton got 31 minutes, while Jim Webb got 15½ minutes and Lincoln Chaffee nine. Whatever you may think about Webb and Chaffee, this is not democracy at work.

 

In the first Republican debate, hosted by Fox News on August 6, 2015, which included 10 candidates, Donald Trump spoke for 11 minutes. No other candidate was given more than seven minutes. Trump was given 28 chances to speak. Only Rand Paul was given half as many.

 

TV Coverage of the Candidates

In France, presidential candidates are not allowed to run ads on television. During the final two weeks before voting begins, the TV and radio channels must give equal time to every candidate. Compare this to the United States, where coverage is driven by increased revenue based on increased ratings. In the immortal words of CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves, speaking of the U.S. presidential race on February 29, 2016, “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS….The money's rolling in and this is fun….It's a terrible thing to say; but, bring it on, Donald. Keep going. For us, economically, Donald's place in this election is a good thing.”

 

By the end of 2015, polling showed that more Americans supported Bernie Sanders than supported Donald Trump. Yet NBC, CBS and ABC had given Trump 23 minutes of coverage for every one minute they gave Sanders.

 

Polls    

For what it’s worth, polls in France are extremely accurate. That’s because there’s a commission in France that regulates polling agencies to make sure they are fair and unbiased.

 

Alienated Voters

It’s safe to say that a majority of both Americans and French were not pleased with the choice of the final two candidates they were forced to choose from. Many members of the media refer to non-voters as “apathetic.” But when I’ve spoken with such people in both countries, I’ve found them more alienated than apathetic.

 

In the end, Marine Le Pen only gained the votes of 22.4% of France’s voting age citizens. Donald Trump didn’t do much better in the United States. Only 24.9% of voting age American citizens voted for him. But while Le Pen was crushed in a landslide, Trump is now president of the United States.

-David Wallechinsky

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