The objective of last week’s coffee chat is as unclear as Marine Le Pen’s stance on Donald Trump himself.
By Massoud Hayoun
This picture distributed courtesy of the U.S. president-elect transition pool reporter Samuel Levine shows Marine Le Pen (R) at Donald Trump’s New York headquarters building on January 12th, 2017. (Photo: Samuel Levine/AFP/Getty Images)
With Donald Trump’s inauguration a mere few hours away, it’s important to ask, once again: What was that coffee with Marine Le Pen all about?
What’s verifiable is that Le Pen is now taking trans-Atlantic strides to garner outside support for what at least one member of her own party (and family) has called a world “axis” of emerging populist politicians.
Also certain (at a time offewanswers to Pacific Standard’s requests for comment from world politicians) is that Le Pen is making greater overtures to international supporters at a time when her party has been strapped for cash and has had difficulty obtaining loans from French banks. And she’s making those inroads with the help of at least one powerful go-between.
Le Pen was photographed Thursday in the basement of Trump’s signature Manhattan skyscraper, drinking coffee from an unceremonious paper cup, flanked by, among others, George Lombardi, an active supporter of Trump. Lombardi, whose website describes him as an Italian-American political analyst and advisor, is listed as a co-founder of the grassroots advocacy group Citizens for Trump. Lombardi acts as a go-between for Trump and Europe’s far-right parties, according to Politico.
Le Pen was there to meet a few dozen “international guys” who would like to “support her candidacy,” Lombardi reportedly told The Daily Beast. She did not meet Trump, although Trump’s White House senior strategist pick, Steve Bannon, had been notified, Lombardi added. She was looking for funding, he said.
But Lombardi told Reuters news agency Le Pen hadn’t even requested a meeting with Trump. Attempts to send requests for further comment to Lombardi through Citizens for Trump’s website contact page failed, and the email address affiliated with Lombardi’s personal website bounced back.
Lombardi has no apparent formal role in the Trump or Le Pen administrations. Short of more information, Le Pen’s trip—and Lombardi’s role in that trip—remains shrouded in mystery. Trump’s team and Le Pen’s National Front did not respond to requests for clarifications on the visit.
Presidential transition spokesman Sean Spicer told Reuters there were no meetings between Trump and Le Pen, and that she entered Trump Tower not by invitation but as a member of the general public. Still, Le Pen’s stance on Trump himself remains unclear.
“There is a genuine intellectual convergence today between all authoritarian nationalists worldwide.”
Her support for Washington’s incoming administration has consistently wavered. In December of 2015 she scoffed at France’s BFMTV correspondent Jean-Jacques Bourdin when he told her on air that the American press had compared her to Trump, the man who had just suggested that the United States ban entry to Muslims.
“You could also say the French press compares me to Hitler,” she exclaimed, apparently outraged that Bourdin would pose such a question. Then, almost immediately after Trump’s win became apparent on November 9th, she tweeted her congratulations to the “free American people.”
Le Pen effectively mainstreamed a party founded by her firebrand father, a Holocaust-denier convicted multiple times of contravening French hate-speech laws. She did this by toning down the party’s rhetoric — although often not its stance — on hot-button issues like immigration and the rights of French communities of color.
Trump came to power doing the opposite — suddenly injecting U.S. politics with a brash counter to its traditionally measured logic and rhetoric.
“There is a genuine intellectual convergence today between all authoritarian nationalists worldwide,” says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior fellow at the French think tank Institut de Relations International et Stratégiques. “There is sort of a Putin-ization of the world. I think both Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump admire Vladimir Putin. They are closer to Putin than to one another, perhaps.”
Still, Marine Le Pen appears “cautious indeed” about joining forces with Trump, “not because she disagrees with him fundamentally, but because of the differences in cultures between France and the U.S. Donald Trump has very poor ratings in France,” Bitar says, citing a study by French pollster Ifop that showed only 13 percent of French people had a favorable opinion of Trump after his November election. Le Pen, on the other hand, has made remarkable strides lately: A recent Ifop-Fiducial poll for the magazine Paris Match showed her trivializing her more center-right adversary François Fillon.
Across the Atlantic, on the same day as the casual coffee, Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is a French parliamentarian and rising star of the National Front, tweeted: “‘Imaginez un axe Trump-Marine-Poutine pour combattre le terrorisme islamiste !’ #Voeux2017.” The tweet’s translation: “Imagine a Trump-Marine-Putin axis to combat Islamist terrorism!’ #2017Wishes.”
The term “axis” was also used by Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo to describe their allegiance during World War II, a unified front to preside over the bloody conquest of massive swaths of foreign lands and the genocide of millions of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Americansmay well already be familiar with the meaning of “axis,” but many French youths are likely to have overlooked this rhetorical nuance, says Cécile Alduy, a Stanford University french literature and politics professor.
“It could hurt only for the segment of the electorate that is aware of this terminology,” Alduy says. “Sadly, the younger generation mostly is not, but will be sensitive to the last part of the phrase: ‘the fight against Islamists.’”
Whether Marine Le Pen would have signed off on her niece’s tweet remains uncertain.
After a period of measured words, Le Pen begun attacking heradversaries on Twitter in Trump-like fashion, French news agency Agence France-Presse recently observed. But still, taking a page out of the Trump playbook does not as yet amount to an official proclamation of a newly forged — or re-emerging — “axis.”
And the “axis” itself may not be National Front policy.Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s stances are not always an indication of Marine’s. Marion has rubbed elbows with her aunt on several issues, most recently on questions of abortion, where the younger Le Pen took a stronger stance against the procedure.
Marine Le Pen has often found herself at greater odds — their problems widelypublicized — with her family amid her effort to rebrand the party with a gentler tone on its proposed policies toward French ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. Some have said her disputes with her father threaten to disenfranchise the party’s old guard. Marion, for her part, has lightly criticized the political strategy of — but also vehemently defended — her grandfather (and Marine’s father), Jean-Marie, amid fallout over his Holocaust skepticism.
In April of 2015, Jean-Marie told the French press that Nazi gas chambers were a mere “detail of history.” Marine would disavow his comments as political sabotage against her. The reasons for the intra-party/familial rivalry are unclear, but, months later, Jean-Marie was ousted from the party altogether in an apparent sign to the public that Marine would pivot away from the National Front’s controversial past and focus her campaign on concerns over national security and cultural preservation — what her opponents charge are pretexts for stoking hatred against French immigrants.
Bitar explains Le Pen’s erstwhile expressions of concern over her father’s comments:
There is an axis being born. They [Trump, Le Pen, Putin, and other far-right European politicians] share the obsession with Islam. Most of these parties were in the past anti-Semitic, some of them remain anti-Semitic, but some have traded anti-Semitism for Islamophobia.
Le Pen, in a bid for the French Jewish vote, has pledged support to Israel. But in a sign of how her party is received by the Jewish community there, French musician Enrico Macias, of Algerian Jewish origin, said in 2015 on France’s TV5, “I tell the Muslim and Jew communities, if Marine Le Pen comes to power, I beg you — leave France.”
“History is eternally repeating itself,” he added later in the interview, referring to France’s World War II collaboration with the Nazis.
This week, both Marine and Marion Le Penhave been remarkably silent on Trump in the wake of the axis tweet and the much-questioned Trump Tower coffee. But not so silent that it would indicate a rupture in their potential foundling diplomatic bond: Both praised Trump this week—not his stance on communities of color, but his social-media-based protectionism of the U.S. auto industry.
“Donald Trump is putting into place for the United States the economic patriotism that I have called for in my wishes for France,” Le Pen told one French radio show Monday.
Marion the niece retweeted her aunts appearance and earlier tweeted, “Even before his inauguration, [Trump] successfully returned automobile factory jobs [to the U.S.].”
Similar to the U.S., the French automobile industry is a symbol of the country’s oft-struggling working class, which has faced dire economic circumstances due largely to the outsourcing of factory jobs to countries with less effective labor unions and lower production costs. In France, jobs manufacturing low-cost vehicles, often sold across the developing world and particularly in France’s former colonies, have for decades been outsourced to North Africa and Eastern Europe.
It’s actually the isolationist principles of emergent rulers like Le Pen and Trump that might be the undoing of any “axis,” according to Bitar.
“Authoritarian personalities are dominating the international arena. It’s also the case in Japan with Shinzo Abe and in India with Narendra Modi. It is really a global trend also affecting Western democracies,” Bitar says.
“You have a lot of intermediaries most often coming from the Identitarian currents of the European extreme right trying to bring all these people together. Now it’s not going to be easy because you have national specificities.”