By Pauline Moullot
Visiting the U.S. is all but mandatory for a French presidential candidate. They get to show voters back home that they have a strong relationship with the most powerful state on earth and the clout to get meetings with influential figures. Most presidential candidates have started campaigning for the May 2012 election, and even someone as anti-American as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party, has made the trip across the Atlantic. At home, she’s turned the National Front into a more respectable organization. She broke with its xenophobic roots and says she stands for the small against the big instead of openly attacking immigrants. The threat of Islamists is still one of her favorite topics, but now she discusses it in a much more subtle way. Coming to the U.S. could have been a chance for her to prove her international mettle, which is crucial to win an election in this time of global crisis. Instead, her U.S. tour was a bust.
For four days last week, she traveled to Washington, New York, and Florida and tried to be seen speaking about international matters. The trip was too early to interest French people living in the U.S., and it lacked a campaign manager. It should be no surprise then that it looked entirely unprofessional. Le Pen, the young leader of the National Front, is the daughter of its former leader and founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and she may have hoped to snag a publicity coup as her father did in 1986. Twenty-five years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen succeeded in getting his picture taken with Ronald Reagan on a trip to Washington. A photo he still brags about and uses to convince others that he had close connections with the Republican President. (Some say Reagan did not even know who he was shaking hands with.)
Le Pen is already "the third man" of the presidential election along with current President Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande of the Socialist Party. One of her biggest hurdles, however, is her lack of foreign policy experience, and right now, she’s showing French voters that she doesn’t even have the stature to get meetings with mid-level American officials. After a first day in Washington mostly spent in tourist visits, French political columnists thoroughly enjoyed seeing the nationalist leader unable to organize a meeting with anyone.
While she was supposed to meet "several republican leaders" according to her staff, their names were not revealed to the press. It turns out that’s because no meetings had been actually planned. In the end, after it was announced and then canceled, she eventually succeeded in meeting Ron Paul, a Republican congressmen from Texas. She waited over an hour but chatted with him for less than ten minutes. Yet, this did not prevent her from name-dropping him two days later, when she spoke to French residents about wanting to end the current monetary system and use gold as a standard.
After a day going to the Statue of Liberty, she invited all the French people living in New York to talk with her. Scheduled at 4 p.m. when many people are at work, only five French residents showed up. There were, however, some 20 journalists, recording the paltry crowd.
"Because of the consulate, who didn't do its job", she says, people only learnt about the meeting the same morning. Yet, was she really expecting hundreds of people to turn out? Even if about 13,000 French people are registered to vote in New York (and about 36,000 live there), they mostly vote for Nicolas Sarkozy. French blue-collar workers, the traditional voters of Marine Le Pen, rarely live abroad.
Having only five supporters did not prevent her from talking about her favorite nationalist topics. She denounced the "political and by the media pressures against her party.” She also spoke about the problems of globalization and how scared people should be of China ("I don't want to live like a Chinese," she kept repeating), and of course of how the economic crisis had proven her right about the evils of the European Union. "Now, we finally see the true face of Europe… and people realize I have always been right," she said.
Yet as a whole, Le Pen played it safe. She did not even mention her meeting with the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., even though it was arguably the most important part of her trip.
Last Thursday, she invited hundreds of diplomats to have lunch with her at the UN. Only five of them came—including Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador. Even if the Israel foreign ministry later explained that this was an "error of judgment," this meeting really is the only success of Le Pen's trip to the U.S. She was able to explain that she breaks from the anti-Semitic views of her father, who once called the Holocaust a "detail of history.”
The smiling lady who met five French people in New York on Friday probably did not win many votes, but her very effort to come to the U.S. shows that she’s trying to move into the French mainstream. Her anti-European integration and anti-globalization themes play well given today’s financial crisis, and with Le Pen as their leader, the French National Front has become a legitimate party on the French political stage. Only a few years ago, the media wondered if they should publicize and interview Jean-Marie Le Pen, but today they fly special correspondents across the Atlantic to cover his daughter. While many forces are in Le Pen’s favor, her failure of a U.S. trip reveals one major obstacle: she needs to get better organized and start running a more serious campaign.
Pauline Moullot is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[photo by Pauline Moullot]