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France: The Impact of the U.S. Election

The World Policy blog is hosting a weekly series of articles featuring global perspectives on the U.S. presidential election, the effects of which extend beyond partisanship and beyond our borders. Read previous articles from the U.K.TurkeyMexico, and Israel. Stay tuned for more commentary from around the world!

By Sidonie le Youdec

France is deeply invested in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, as it will determine the next leader of the country’s longtime ally. The election could change the course of political decisions and alliances around the world. France is especially concerned by how this change in leadership will impact the existing collaboration between France and the United States, particularly in areas such as fighting terrorism. The unexpected vote for Brexit increases the importance of this election, putting key and established alliances at a crossroad. With a president like Donald Trump, the U.S. could go back to its old isolationism and leave France in a difficult position.

On the one hand, France’s political interests are at stake in this election. The future of the French-U.S. alliance will affect how issues such as the Islamic State, the refugee crisis, and future global challenges are addressed. On the other hand, while the country is fascinated, and sometimes shocked, by the populism that emerged in this election in support for candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, many can relate this phenomenon to political trends in France, such as the growing dislike of classic elitist politicians. French people feel that, just like them, U.S. citizens are tired of electing the same small elite, and are therefore seeking other candidates who they feel will understand and represent them better. These two points make the American election very notable for France, and of great importance for the future of the two countries’ relationship.

Generally, the French public strongly prefers Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. This choice is not only determined by conservative or liberal political beliefs, but by whether people have been following the election closely in the media. France is shocked by some of Trump’s declarations, even though French people in general are not as well informed as Americans about the daily developments in the campaign. Dominique Reynié, professor of political science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, says, “Most of the French government and public sphere prefers Hillary Clinton, and while this is also true for a portion of French people, some of them either do not have opinions or do not want to choose as they do not like either the elite or the populists. As for Trump, French people tend to be suspicious of the media in general, therefore they are not necessarily perfectly informed.” The lack of information is a problem because while French people in general dislike Trump, they do not have a complete picture of his policies and therefore might not be able to measure his possible impact. Disliking Trump can therefore become a popular belief in France rather than an opinion based on facts.

The portion of the French population that is against Trump fears that his election would have “a negative aspect on American democracy and world peace,” as reported by LOBS in 2016. Moreover, France appreciates the fact that Hillary would be the first female president of the U.S. This factor has been one of the main reasons she appeals to people in France, and both media outlets and politicians have widely talked about it as an important step toward gender equality.

While Trump’s image is largely negative in France, the National Front (FN), the far-right political party, and its leader Marine Le Pen have been associated many times with Trump and his policies, labeled as the French version of both the Trump phenomenon and the increase in support for the far right. A French newspaper, LOBS, reported in March 2016 that although the majority of French people (59 percent) did not like Trump, 11 percent did. Surprisingly, it also said that 39 percent of FN voters have a favorable view of Trump, even though until that time the FN itself had tried hard not to be associated with Trump’s rhetoric. The association of Le Pen and the FN with Trump has actually been problematic for the FN and its political strategy. Although her father and former leader of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, declared support for Trump, until recently Marine Le Pen was cautious not to indicate her position. Reynié said, “With the 2017 presidential elections approaching, the FN has been trying to change its reputation and show that if elected, the party would bring peace and security to France. Therefore, being associated with Trump, whose campaign rallies have been violent and controversial, is not in their best interest.” Marine Le Pen recently stated that she would vote for Trump if she were a U.S. citizen, but did not go so far as to position herself as a French version of the divisive American politician. 

The election is also crucial for France in terms of its impact on the political alliance with the U.S., and on international politics in general. The U.S. has been an ally to France dating back to the former’s founding, and the two countries have been on good terms for most of this period. Although this alliance relies on treaties, a change of leader in one of the countries could deeply impact the relationship, especially if his or her policies diverge significantly from those of the previous president. Currently, the U.S. is an important partner for France in the fight against terrorism as well as in the refugee crisis, and France hopes to maintain a good working relationship with the future president.

France’s political sphere fears Trump’s election because it would represent the unknown; politicians are worried because Trump is unpredictable and his policies appear to be extremely fluid and inconsistent. In addition, if Trump became president, France would fear that the U.S. would go back to its old isolationist habits and stop helping allies address various world crises. Adding Brexit to this calculation, American isolationism would further decrease international collaboration precisely at a time when many current crises are global and need to be handled through cooperation. No country alone can manage the migrant crisis, for instance. Reynié points out that “It is impossible to imagine world politics without the U.S. which have been very present and active, therefore France fears a change in regime or the unpredictable decisions of a new commander.” Working with Hillary Clinton would be more reassuring for France, and probably less of a change, making her the preferred option. French people also fear that Trump’s election would agitate relations between different cultures and encourage racism, facilitating the spread of this phenomenon beyond American borders to Europe, especially as it relates to persecution of Muslim populations.

The American election is definitely not leaving France indifferent, as the country’s interests are at stake. The majority of French people and of the French government would prefer to see Hillary Clinton elected, as they see her as the most reliable candidate, while they are shocked by the rise of populism and Donald Trump, who they consider an extreme and anti-system candidate. The outcome of the American election could impact the future elections in France and in Europe due to  the repercussions of the next U.S. president’s policies and the future of the French-American alliance. Furthermore, the election will determine of the direction of global collaboration and affect how pressing challenges will be handled, impacting not only France but the international system more broadly.

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Sidonie le Youdec is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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