Marine Le Pen Echoes Trump’s Bleak Populism and Brexit in French Campaign Kickoff

The French far-right leader Marine Le Pen delivered a grim populist kickoff to her burgeoning presidential campaign on Sunday, warning thousands of her flag-waving supporters of “two totalitarianisms,” globalization and Islamism, that want to “subjugate France.”

Ms. Le Pen’s dark picture of a weakened France troubled by bureaucrats and burqas was a striking echo of themes being sounded across the Atlantic. France, a prosperous country with the world’s sixth-largest economy, was depicted as a besieged wreck. In a packed hall here, she made a point, in an hourlong speech brimming with nationalist fervor, of praising President Trump and the Americans who had elected him, as her supporters shouted forcefully, “This is our country!”

Americans, she said, had “kept faith with their national interest,” even as she promised to do the same for France, saying the French had been “dispossessed of their patriotism.”

Whether it will sell in a country undoubtedly frightened by terrorism and weary of unemployment hovering around 10 percent is unclear, but it is certain that Ms. Le Pen’s National Front party is closer than it has ever been to gaining power in France after over 40 years of existence. Polls show that she is very likely to reach at least a second round of voting in France’s two-stage electoral process this spring.

The weekend’s campaigning in this prosperous southeastern metropolis — her likely runoff opponent, Emmanuel Macron, the centrist former economy minister, also drew thousands to a rally across town on Saturday — offered a taste of the fierce electoral battle to come and a rerun of some of the American election’s dynamic.

The populist Ms. Le Pen, 48, offered up a forbidding dystopia in urgent need of radical upheaval, much like Mr. Trump did. The boyish Mr. Macron — he is 39 and has created a nonparty political movement that has suddenly caught fire — spoke of “reconciling” France and of “working together,” and repeatedly addressed more than 10,000 supporters in a giant stadium as “my friends.” France would certainly stay in the European Union, in his view, and there would be none of Ms. Le Pen’s war on globalization.

The crowd spilled onto the grounds outside the stadium, forcing many to watch Mr. Macron on huge screens. He took a backhanded slap at Mr. Trump, promising refuge in enlightened France to American scientists, academics and companies “fighting obscurantism” at home. They would have, “as of next May,” the date of the presidential runoff, “a homeland, and that will be France,” Mr. Macron promised.

The candidates both present themselves as outsiders — Mr. Macron served in the Socialist government but is not a Socialist, while Ms. Le Pen’s party has never held power — but the crowds at the two rallies were a study in contrast. Judging by a dozen-odd interviews, Mr. Macron’s group was peppered with teachers, doctors, academics, civil servants and men who described themselves as “heads of companies.”

In contrast, Ms. Le Pen’s crowd was full of factory workers and former soldiers, and it adored her thundering opening line: “I’m against the Right of money, and the Left of money. I’m the candidate of the people!”

Still, the slickly produced two-day National Front event at Lyon’s modernist conference center, full of party functionaries in blazers scurrying about, showed how far the party has come from its disreputable ragtag origins in the early 1970s, when it emerged as a 14xenophobic coalition of former Nazi collaborators and disgruntled veterans of the Algerian war who had not forgiven the country’s leaders for having agreed to Algeria’s independence — like Ms. Le Pen’s father, the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

She has effectively kicked him out of the party. But Ms. Le Pen’s populist tirade echoed with many of the former patriarch’s themes. She delivered her speech against a screen projecting the words “In the Name of the People,” and it was full of immigrants committing crimes, jihadists plotting attacks and European Union bureaucrats stealing jobs from the French.

Ms. Le Pen promised to crack down on all of them. Clearly buoyed by Mr. Trump’s victory after years of electoral defeats in France — “The impossible becomes the possible,” Ms. Le Pen said of it — she offered a sketch of what her presidency might look like. She promised to hold a referendum within six months on European Union membership, which she called a “nightmare,” secure the country’s borders and pull France out of NATO. Foreigners, she said, were eating up France’s social benefits and offering little in return. “Our benefits are distributed to people all over the world,” she said.

But in contrast to Mr. Trump, for Ms. Le Pen restoring what she called “sovereignty” to France appeared as an end in itself. She offered no return to a golden age of prosperity for her country, promising instead to “restore order” within five years. Ruin was just around the corner, in her telling. “After decades of cowardice and laissez-faire, our choice is a choice of civilization,” she said. “Will our children live in a country that is still French and democratic?”

The crowd ate it up. “She’s got a real program, in the name of the people, for the workers, and by the workers,” said Eric Fusis, a 58-year-old retired military officer from the Doubs. “It’s for the nation, and not for the financial sector and the banks,” he said.