This Sunday’s French presidential election result will likely halt, at least for now, the pixilated-populist, far-right wave that rippled through western democracies over the past year yielding Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the White House.
But for Russian despot Vladimir Putin it will have an immediate and unwelcome effect. It would be a setback for his campaign to disrupt the politics of the West.
However, for Russian domestic consumption in Putin’s fake reality world, he has tried to portray himself not merely as an influence upon but as the all-powerful, canny master-puppeteer controlling the Western politicians who seemed in the ascendency and paid obeisance to the bare-chested Tsar.
Indeed, a few weeks before the first round, Maine Le Pen, who acknowledges receiving Russian financial help, met the Tsar himself. She probably intended the visit to Russia to make her look an international player and bolster her standing among the far-right voters who admire Putin’s anti-Americanism and many European Communists, who creepily and effortlessly, have transferred their allegiance from Marxist tyrants in the Kremlin to the fascist kind.
For months preceding the April 23 first round, National Front leader Marine Le Pen was tipped to come out as the front-runner but was beaten into second place by centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.
In a desperate gamble, Le Pen has tried to broaden her appeal by putting distance between herself and her party, which has been unable to shrug off the suspicion that the racist and anti-Semitic sentiments still linger within its ranks. Those sentiments certainly formed much of the appeal for the supporters of party founder, Jean Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, when he ran the National Front between 1972 and 2011. She expelled her father from the party when he repeated statements doubting the Holocaust.
The day after Macron gained 23.8 percent of the vote against her 21.7 percent, Le Pen declared she was no longer National Front leader (understood to be a temporary ceding of power) but a candidate for all French people.
She hopes that by thus rebranding herself she will gain some of the Republican vote, especially from those who dislike the EU and are concerned at Muslim immigration and from repellent extreme-Left parties, which also fared quite well and are often a hair’s breadth away from National Front positions, especially in their adoration of Putin. Le Pen knows that she risks offending some National Front supporters by seemingly shying away from them. But she has bet that in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way they understand her new ideological tent is big-enough to accommodate those who cling to her father’s purist line.
However, despite giddying, logic-defying, statistical acrobatics by pundits to show that Le Pen could still win – depending on, for her, a favorable conjunction of many improbable factors – it looks like Macron, with a 20 percent lead in most of the polls, will become president.
Macron has swooped out of nowhere in the past few months to take command of an anarchic – even by French standards – political landscape.
The charge forward of his En Marche Party, founded barely over a year ago, has been aided by the collapse of support for the previously dominant conservative Republican Party. Its candidate, Francois Fillon, was accused of fraudulently claiming state funds by pretending he employed his wife and children in his political work.
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Fillon refused his party’s pleas to step down in favor of a non-scandal ridden candidate. The Republicans joined the Socialists, the other traditional French ruling party, in breaking the decades old political mould by both getting knocked out of the race.
Barring a last-minute damaging scandal, Macron seems set to win, his numbers swelled by the support of probably a majority of Republicans and Socialists and likely some Left hardliners, all united in finding the relabeled Le Pen as unpalatable as the previous brand and in search of more “normal” and safe hands at the helm.
On the night of the American elections last November when Trump won the presidency, Putin swelled with triumph and bottles of Champagne were cracked open in the Kremlin, the Russian Duma and elsewhere. Everything seemed to be going Putin’s way. Trump, who has continued to praise the repellant Putin whatever atrocity he committed and despite overwhelming evidence the Kremlin tried to interfere in the US election, seemed Russia’s man in the White House. And the far-right seemed set to do splendidly in elections in the Netherlands and France.
But now Trump is having to change because he is being taught that the US is a mature democracy with three branches of government and strong institutions, and he cannot use his legislature and judiciary as obedient rubber stampers like Putin does. Trump’s position has been diminished by the Netherlands result and what is likely to happen in France on Sunday.
French security experts say that the Russian state-backed hackers who intruded in US and Dutch elections have been at work in France trying to influence the electorate by spewing out a toxic effluent of distortions, lies and fake news to skew support in favor of Le Pen.
Putin still has his secret services, massive propaganda machine and hackers continuing to work against Macron, and it would not be a surprise if scandalous allegations emerged early enough to make an impact on the election but too late to dispel completely.
But it’s very unlikely the Kremlin’s efforts will prevent victory for Macron, who is anti-Putin and who doesn’t want to smash up the EU. And that victory will prove that Europe’s democracy, as fractured as it may seem, is mature and steadfast in ways that a gangster-dictator like Putin can never begin to understand.
So, to end with, two things:
a) When, as a student, I had saved up enough money to buy my first Levi jeans I learned with horror that my beloved, well-intentioned grandmother had laundered and ironed them and snipped off the “ugly” red Levi tag and “silly” leather label. I had been“rebranded” but everyone still knew I was wearing Levis.
b) The smug Putin has worked hard to convince his people that he is a black-ops genius secretly pulling the world’s levers of power. Now he is in danger of comparison with the monkeys in some of the first space capsules who perhaps also thought they were controlling epic events.