Sunday, May 07, 2017

From Russia With Love: French Voters Reject Le Pen

New French president Emmanuel Macron
Like millions of other people around the globe today, I spent much of this morning anxiously awaiting the results of the presidential elections in France.

Back in March there was a collective sigh of relief after the Dutch elections for prime minister when the more moderate conservative Mark Rutte held off the far right candidate Geert Wilders.

Today that political trend echoed across France.

Based on early poll results, it appears the people of France have soundly rejected the divisive political ideology of extremist rightwing nationalism, and embraced a strong European Union.

According to poll projections published by the BBC, the moderate centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron appears to have soundly beaten the far right extremist candidate Marine Le Pen, garnering (at the time I'm writing this) 63.3% of the vote to her 36.7% based on results from polling stations that have already closed.

By French political standards this campaign was a pretty brutal slugfest evidenced by a lengthy and combative nationally televised presidential debate last Wednesday evening in which accusations and political insults were lobbed by both candidates.

French voters watched the conservative National Front candidate Le Pen appear to take a page from the Donald Trump campaign playbook and resort to peddling "alternative facts" to enflame and exaggerate fears and anxieties over the immigration issue that has divided so many in Europe.

It's a strategy that appears to have backfired for a number of reasons, and from a strategic perspective, I think Le Pen and her campaign advisors wildly underestimated the depth of Trump's unpopularity both here in America and around the globe - particularly after his chaotic first 100 days in office.

Far right candidate Marine Le Pen   [AFP-Getty Images] 
There's no question this campaign bore similarities to America's divisive 2016 presidential campaign.

Particularly with regards to the rise of a far right extremist ideology born of a populace frustrated with an unpopular president, and a political status quo that appeared disconnected from, and unable to solve, the difficult economic challenges faced by average people.

The French campaign also revolved around issues similar to the 2016 U.S. campaign.

The French presidential race was waged against a backdrop of a Democratic nation coping with fears over terrorism and the impact of immigration still trying to find it's economic footing in the wake of a global recession which has left the country with high unemployment lingering at around 10% nationally.

But where Le Pen, in many ways, patterned her campaign on Donald Trump, Macron took his cue from the pages of President Obama's playbook from his brilliant 2008 campaign.

Macron, a former investment banker, served as economic minister under the unpopular current Socialist president Francois Hollande.

But he shrewdly launched his own grassroots political movement called En Marche! (which translates to On the Move) in April of 2016, carefully distancing himself politically and ideologically from Hollande by stepping down from his ministerial position.

Macron's campaign also used a political research firm that had done work for Obama's 2008 campaign to conduct an intense outreach effort, sending out people to knock on the doors of thousands of doors to personally engage with voters and understand their concerns and collect data.

Macron visits a school during the campaign  [Getty]
He also used focus groups to help craft his campaign message and target the issues most important to mainstream French voters in order to carve out a centrist space to the left of Le Pen's far right National Front, and to the right of Hollande's Socialist party.

He ran a much more upbeat and inclusive campaign than Le Pen.

Macron also got a huge boost on Thursday with a videotaped endorsement from Obama, who remains hugely popular in France and in much of Western Europe.

The result was the first victory by a French presidential candidate outside of the two main political parties since the 1950's.

But undoubtedly the most disturbing comparison between the 2017 French presidential campaign and the 2016 American campaign was the effort by the Russian intelligence apparatus to use a combination of illegally obtained hacked personal emails and fake documents to sew doubt about Macron in order to help Le Pen - whose nationalism and authoritarian views are widely seen as more aligned with those of Russian president Vladimir Putin.  

Just like in the American presidential race, Russia timed the dump of a huge volume of information to take place at a critical point in the elections - in the case of France on Friday evening just before a period when candidates are not permitted to campaign or comment publicly.

As Reuters reported on Saturday, representatives from Macron's campaign reported that a "massive" mix of documents containing campaign finance information and email correspondence were dumped into Pastebin - a site where documents can be uploaded anonymously.

According to Reuters, the cyber-intelligence firm Flashpoint reports that APT 28, a group with ties to the Russian military intelligence branch known as the GRU, was responsible for dumping the documents intended to harm Macron's chances.

But fortunately the French government and media moved quickly to ensure that none of the documents obtained in the Russian hack would be released prior to voters going to the polls.

"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" banner unfurled under
the Eiffel Tower by Greenpeace on Friday
As Jason Easley observed in an article posted on on Saturday afternoon, the French media collectively agreed not to publish any of the information hacked by the Russians.

Not just because there was not enough time to carefully evaluate the information and source it properly.

But because doing so would allow a foreign entity to undermine the legitimacy of free and fair elections in a Democratic nation.

Which in the case of America, allowed a petulant, incompetent narcissist with no political experience solely motivated by financial greed to be elected president.

Personally I'm wondering when the world's leading Western Democracies are going to have the balls to collectively stand up and deal with Russia's overt attempts to manipulate the outcomes of elections in foreign nations.

Here in America, the legitimacy of free and fair elections are already under threat from within by the Republican Party's policy of disenfranchising voters and putting up barriers for people of color, the elderly, legal immigrants and students to participate in the right to vote.

Now we have a Republican majority in Congress, to say nothing of a president whose administration
is rife with advisors and officials with proven links to Russia, that seems to be dragging its feet on conducting investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

But despite all that I am optimistic, because I think the outcome of today's election in France shows that mainstream voters overwhelmingly reject the kind of divisive rightwing nationalism that defines the Trump administration.

I think the outcome of the French election bodes well for the upcoming Congressional mid-term elections in 2018 here in America.

As Jean-Francois Julliard of Greenpeace, the group responsible for unfurling a huge banner beneath the Eiffel Tower on Friday emblazoned with the motto of the French Republic, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", told public radio Francinfo:

"We wanted to say that we are against the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism in France and in other countries. This is our way of reminding everybody they all need to mobilize to defend these values of liberty, equality and fraternity."

Macron's election is a powerful reminder for us here in America as well.

Vive le France!

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