‘It’s going to be a very interesting election. But you know some outside things have happened that maybe will change the course of that race.’ This from Trump, speculating in an interview with the Financial Times about Marine Le Pen’s prospects in the French presidential election (round one on 23 April). As far as we know, Trump has yet to meet her. She got as far as Trump Tower in January, but the president elect was indisposed and Le Pen’s people said at the time that she never intended to meet him. She linked up instead with one of his aides-de-camp. Here she is having coffee with Guido Lombardi, who has a pied-à-terre in Trump Tower and was formerly the US representative of Italy’s Northern League. Both Le Pen and Lombardi like to spare a moment to mull over the scourge of immigration.
It’s as well for Le Pen that she missed a photo opportunity with Trump that could have come back to haunt her. She is angry and embarrassed by her favourite outsider’s missile strike on Shayrat airbase in Homs, after the sarin attack in Idlib province last Tuesday.
Yet Trump’s impulsive decision – one in the eye for Obama – does not mark an end to the ideological confusion that Europe is experiencing, with the new hard right and an older left refraining from objections to the Trump ascendancy, and to Brexit, on the grounds that the real enemy is liberal market ideology and the European behemoth that drives it. That is certainly Le Pen’s view. Her most eloquent opponent – Jean-Luc Mélenchon for La France insoumise, well to the left of the Socialist Party, who can make fools of his rivals in debate – happens to share it.
It’s hard to remember a period when far-right and left-of-left lived in such uneasy complicity, disagreeing, above all, on the observable ways in which they’re aligned. This is nothing like the dying days of the Third Republic, when Moscow forced the Communist Party to acquiesce in Nazi ambitions in Europe. The Hitler-Stalin pact brought turbulence and doubt to members and sympathetic observers. Paul Nizan left the party; Sartre wrote that the pact strengthened the enthusiasm of the French bourgeoisie for a war that would end up dissolving the party. But the stress that the French party laid on anti-imperialism as a justification for the pact finds an echo in Le Pen’s intense dislike of Western interventionism (Russian interventionism seems to be OK). Trump promised to step back from all that.
The German assault on Russian deployments in Poland in 1941 brought the Nazi-Soviet Pact to an end. Trump’s 59 missiles will not clear the lines. Both Le Pen and Mélenchon – who has the remains of the Communist Party behind him – are Russotropic. Le Pen turns towards Moscow for a paradigm of strong-man nationalism; her party has secured loans from Russian banks. Mélenchon still discerns a version of Republican socialism through the miasma rising from its monumental Euro-Asian past, including Bolshevism: his policies are grounded in a dynamic argument with old and terrible failures, including Stalinism. Both candidates are more or less wedded to Assad as a Russian satrap. Mélenchon in 2016, responding to a question about Putin’s involvement in Syria, replied: ‘I think he will sort out the problem.’ Le Pen, on a visit to Lebanon in February, hailed Assad as the only ‘viable solution’ in Syria.
Both contenders will modulate their positions and hope for the best. Mélenchon, the first candidate for the French presidency to open a YouTube channel, has said that he deplores the sarin attacks but won’t yet attribute them to Assad. He can still weave an ingenious path through the new Cold War discourse. Le Pen is in a tight spot. She took Trump to be a good omen for her campaign, but after Syria she is disabused, and looks embarrassed. Not so Mélenchon, whose prowess as a politician is propelling him slowly forward towards an honourable defeat. The latest Paris Match-Ifop real-time poll – ‘real time’ is 6 p.m. daily, Monday to Friday – has him in fourth place, about to edge past François Fillon, and well ahead of Benoît Hamon. In spite of her claim on TV on Sunday that ‘France’ was not responsible for the round-ups of Jews at the Vél d’Hiv, two years after the French defeat and a year after the Hitler-Stalin pact was broken, Marine Le Pen appears to be leading the field.