French lessons: Avoiding the Trump Trap

2:04 pm on 24 November 2016

By Phil Smith - (piripismith@gmail.com), @piripismith

Opinion - Sometimes in politics there is a lot to fight against, but to win reluctant voters it also helps to fight for something. Phil Smith looks at what we, and the French, can learn from recent results.

The Brexit result was blamed in part on the Remain camp failing to sell a simple message that was for Europe, not just against those opposing it. The American election result has been blamed, again in part, on the Democrats focusing on why Donald Trump was deplorable; and despite hundreds of pages of detailed policy, neglecting to sell a simple message about what they were for.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump in front of a 'Make America Great Again' election billboard. Photo: AFP

Third time lucky. In the French election early next year we may see if any lessons have been learned.

The French have begun their 2017 presidential election process with the two-round primary for the leading conservative party Les Republicains. It caused a flurry last weekend when former president Sarkozy was beaten into third by his own Prime Minister François Fillon, and eliminated.

April's presidential election will also be a two-round run-off and is already being portrayed as a fight between the scary Marine Le Pen and her eventual opponent.

That may not be correct. Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front is not assured of breaching its solid constituency of 30 percent to reach the second round. But if the unpopular sitting President François Hollande is the eventual Socialist Party candidate it will increase the odds of a match-up between Le Pen and a Republican.

Front National president Marine Le Pen

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen Photo: AFP

The last time this happened was when Marine's father Jean-Marie Le Pen was trounced by Jacques Chirac in 2002. On that occasion, possibly remembering the 1932 election just across the border, every other party called on their supporters to vote against the greater threat. Enormous turnout from across the fractured French political spectrum amounted to an 82 percent to 18 percent repudiation of the far right. But the National Front never went away and Marine has built a slicker, more approachable version since she forcibly put her less saleable father out to pasture.

Next year's match-up would be Le Pen against one of two former Prime Ministers (with all of their baggage); President Sarkozy's prime minister François Fillon, or President Chirac's short-lived prime minister Alain Juppé. The current front runner is Mr Fillon, who, like Donald Trump, is Putin-friendly and thinks immigrants should assimilate; (interestingly he has a Welsh wife, who presumably has obligingly assimilated and supports Les Bleus to beat the Welsh in rugby). Alain Juppé, by comparison, is a multiculturalist who is probably Le Pen's favoured opposition.

Either way, it will be easy for Le Pen to portray the election as the old-guard against an agent of sweeping change. And the 'change' message has the ring of success recently, especially in places like France where the economy is slumping and people are feeling the pinch.

If Le Pen's opponent falls into the Trump trap they will spend all of their time denouncing Marine Le Pen as dangerous and re-litigating their own unpopular previous administrations. That way lies defeat, even against the odds.

That doesn't mean that they should pretend that the National Front is normal. It is not, and they should certainly seek to rally the country against an ideology that is, in all but name, neo-Nazi. Just as it was perfectly reasonable for Hillary Clinton to notice Donald Trump's xenophobia, bigotry and misogyny.

But attacks should never be your main message. And attacks should be against actions and ideas and policies; not people, especially not opposition supporters (as Hillary Clinton and Gordon Brown learnt to their cost).

People voting in east Los Angeles.

An east Los Angeles polling booth on US election day. Photo: AFP

The core message has to be about what you believe and therefore what you will achieve for France, or America or New Zealand. The same is true anywhere. Elections are won through turnout and while parties are sometimes voted against; for voters to leave home and make the effort to vote, it is much more useful to have something that they are inspired to vote for.

Marine le Pen, like Donald Trump has the enviable advantage of a simple message of anger, resentment and change. Reality is more complicated than that but it doesn't make for a good slogan, and positive messages are much harder to sell. But it can be done.

For the good of French equality and fraternity, and the continued stability of Europe we can hope that the third time's a charm.

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