Why Trump Should Want Le Pen to Lose

The French nativist's program holds no promise for U.S. economic or military interests.

Don't be fooled by the red, white and blue.

Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's extreme nationalist National Front, kicked off her election campaign with a fiery speech that, among other things, praised U.S. President Donald Trump, that beacon for European nationalist populists, for "keeping promises and acting quickly and powerfully in the interest" of the American people. But if she wins the French presidential election -- a possibility since traditional political forces are in disarray -- her actions will be unlikely to please Trump.

It's often tempting to lump all the nationalist populists together because of their most visible unifying features -- nativism and hostility toward immigrants, particularly Muslim ones. They act in concert, rejoice in each other's company and hope to imitate Trump's success. But a nativist international is an oxymoron. These politicians want to seal their countries, and that's a threat to the U.S., not just the European Union. 

Le Pen's speech last Sunday in Lyon, the industrial city in southeastern France, built on her freshly published "commitments" to voters -- 144 of them. The plan touches upon the main themes familiar from the Trump campaign. It's actually tougher on immigration and on Muslims than anything Trump proposed. It calls for an annual limit of 10,000 persons on net immigration, an end to the "right of the soil," under which citizenship is granted to children born in France, the automatic expulsion of everyone linked to "Islamic fundamentalists" and a ban on foreign funding for religious organizations. It also talks of "re-industrialization" and protectionism, assured by France's exit from the euro and the European Union (Le Pen proposes to call a Frexit referendum within six months of coming to power), and it promises lower taxes to businesses.

Yet if Trump's explicit motivation for his slogans was rooted in economic competition -- the outflow of jobs across the border, the U.S. trade deficit -- Le Pen's case for nativism is primarily cultural. In the Lyon speech, she said France faced a "civilizational choice." It was, she said, the time to decide whether France's next generation would still be French:

Will they live according to our cultural reference frame, our civilizational values, our art of living, and will they even still speak our language, French, which is disintegrating under the blows of political leaders who squander this national treasure, going as far as choosing a slogan in English to promote Paris's bid for the 2024 Olympics?

The slogan, "made for sharing," picked for France's 2024 Olympics bid, is not one Le Pen would endorse in any language. Her program, and her speech, are all about putting France first. In Le Pen's France, the salaries of non-French employees will be subject to an additional tax. Foreign companies won't be able to acquire French ones if the latter have received government subsidies. They will also be denied government procurement contracts "as long as French companies' prices are reasonable." Le Pen would get out of free trade agreements and tax "activity carried out in France by large groups and profits that would be diverted."

The Lyon speech went further than these proposals. In it, Le Pen lashed out against what she sees as two-pronged globalism threatening France. Islamic fundamentalism is one target; global capital is the other. Le Pen decries "the economic globalism that refuses any limitation and any regulation and which, for that purpose, weakens the nation's immunity." 

We would be wrong to see this merely as attacks on the EU, though it is Le Pen's prime target. Much of the "globalist" foreign capital in France is American. The U.S., according to the American Chamber of Commerce in France, is the country's No. 1 foreign investor. In 2014, it was the fourth-biggest source of foreign direct investment, after two tax havens -- Luxembourg and the Netherlands -- and the U.K. 

U.S. financial and tech companies will be among the first to suffer if Le Pen comes to power. She will make the relocation of staff economically unfeasible and lay waste to these firms' tax schemes. Her understanding of "economic patriotism" will also make mergers and acquisitions even more difficult than they are today.

France, the eighth-biggest trade partner of the U.S., receives more than $31 billion annually in U.S. exports. Trade between the two countries is relatively balanced, with France enjoying about a $1 billion surplus, but, given Le Pen's hostility toward imports and her intention to support French exports, especially agricultural ones, the balance is hardly going to shift in favor of the U.S. 

A Le Pen-led France would not present an environment in which the U.S. can "win," as Trump promised. Its economic cooperation with the U.S. -- and with the rest of the world -- would shrink. So would military cooperation: Le Pen wants to take France out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's integrated military command structure so that the country is no longer "dragged into wars that are not its own."

Trump's team and Trump himself celebrate every crack that emerges in European unity. They appear to want the EU and the euro area to fall apart. The European nationalists who share these goals appear to be Trump's natural allies. But if they prevail despite competition from re-energized elites, they will put their own country first. Trump will get more difficult negotiating partners than he faces today, because their resistance to any U.S. expansion will be ideologically motivated and intractable.

Trump should hope the likes of Le Pen lose: Unlike Brexiteers, who appear to seek his favor and welcome free trade, nationalists in France and the German-speaking world are by no means pro-American, no matter how encouraging Trump's victory is for them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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