Sunday’s runoff election in France will pit centrist Emmanuel Macron against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen for the presidency. On both sides of the Atlantic, people are holding their breaths. Will the French succumb to the same forces that produced Brexit and Trump?
But is Le Pen a French version of Trump? Or is Trump a clumsy version of Le Pen, as I put it in a Huffington Post article during the primaries? At that time, when everyone was trying to figure out what Trump represented, I advanced the interpretation that he had stumbled into the politics of the National Front and that these were at odds with traditional Republicanism.
The National Front combines nationalistic opposition to immigration with support for the welfare state. For that reason, it has been able to make inroads into working class constituencies that traditionally voted left. While it’s routinely referred to as a far right party in the U.S. press, it does not describe itself as such, arguing that its platform combines right and left wing elements so that it is neither fully the one nor the other. One thing for sure is that it is not a neoliberal pro business party like the Republican Party in the United States. It does not endorse free trade agreements or privatization of publicly-owned enterprises.
In an American context, far right connotes anti-welfare state. But the National Front is not that either. It just wants to reserve the benefits of the France’s generous welfare state for the French alone and exclude immigrants. The National Front, therefore, is not the same as, say, the Tea Party-backed Freedom Caucus of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives that just held Trumpcare hostage until reforms were made to make it provide even less health protection.
Trump, during the primaries, seemed to be following the National Front script: bashing immigrants while reassuring workers he would not harm Social Security or Medicare, the two bedrocks of what exists of a minimalist American welfare state. He went further, promising that he would repeal and replace Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act with a health plan that would be better, cover more people, and cost less.
I now believe my analysis to have been wrong. The politics of Trump have turned out to be quite different than those of Le Pen. Once he entered office, while remaining true to his anti-immigrant rhetoric by translating it into actions, he quickly abandoned his pledges to safeguard Medicare and improve access to quality health care. He endorsed the Ryan and Freedom Caucus plans to strip the ACA of revenue from extra taxes on the rich, thereby producing a huge tax savings for them, leaving a plan that would end coverage for up to 24 million people and provide less quality coverage in multiple ways for those who retained it.
Should Le Pen win on Sunday, I would be very surprised if she would follow the Trump example and betray her working class voters by attempting to take away their social benefits. The welfare state is more deeply entrenched, comprehensive, and embraced in France. Part of her appeal to voters is precisely that she implies it is more safely in her hands than in those of Macron who wants to make the cost of French labor more “competitive,” a code word for decreasing the cost of social benefits.
The closest example I can think of to Trump is thus no longer Le Pen. It is Lucio Gutierrez who ran for President of Peru in 2003 on a radical anti-neoliberal platform. Then once in office, he proceeded to implement sweeping neoliberal reforms. A popular revolt then drove him from office, paving the way for leftwing presidency of Rafael Correa.
None of this is meant to sugar coat the common ugliness of the anti-immigrant scapegoating by Trump and Le Pen. They are truly right wing and to be opposed in that sense. But the French have far less to fear for their welfare state if Le Pen wins than Americans do for their social programs as the Trump administration bumbles forward.