PARIS: Donald Trump's stunning victory, coming hot on the heels of Brexit, has made 2016 a humbling year for political forecasters, with Marine Le Pen's chances of pulling off a similar coup in France suddenly being taken more seriously. France's two-round electoral system makes it difficult for outsiders to cause an upset but the jubilant National Front (FN) leader saw Trump's win as an auspicious sign for her bid to become French president next year.
"What happened last night was not the end of the world but the end of a world. Americans have given themselves the president they chose and not one that the establishment wanted rubber-stamped," she told a press conference at her party headquarters. It showed nothing was "set in stone," Le Pen added with relish.
While France's Socialist government reacted with trepidation to the election of the brash billionaire, Le Pen hailed it as "good news for France", lauding his opposition to free trade with Europe, to "rampant globalisation" and the "warlike interventions that are the source of the huge migratory waves that we are suffering".Le Pen stopped short of predicting poll glory for herself, leaving that to her father. "Today, the United States, tomorrow France. Bravo America!" Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN's founder, tweeted.
In April, the French will begin voting for a leader who enjoys even greater executive powers than the US commander-in-chief, including the authority to send the country to war without parliamentary approval. Polls currently show Le Pen making it past the first round to the May run-off among the top two vote-getters, but then being defeated by the conservative candidate, widely expected to be former prime minister Alain Juppe. But voices on France's political left and right warned all bets were now off.
"The boundaries of reason disappeared with Brexit. The main lesson for us in France is that Marine Le Pen can win," conservative former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told RTL radio, an assessment echoed by fellow former premier Dominique de Villepin. The left-wing Liberation daily said the US election meant "the world's biggest power is now in the hands of the far right" and called it "a further warning for those who think that Marine Le Pen cannot win power in France in 2017".Rampant de-industrialisation, high unemployment, a wave of terrorist attacks and an influx of migrants have seen disillusioned voters decamp in their droves to the "French first" FN.
In echoes of Trump's "Make America Great Again" or Brexit's "Take Control" slogans, Le Pen has declared: "The time of the nation state has come again." "There's a global awakening," she told reporters at a party rally in September, where she bashed the EU, the euro and immigration. As FN leader back in 2002, her father caused the biggest upset in French post-war political history when he reached the second round of the presidential election. Jacques Chirac, a conservative, soundly beat Le Pen, with support from leftists.
Fourteen years later, 48-year-old Marine Le Pen, who came third in the 2012 election, is trying to overcome the last remaining pockets of anti-FN resistance. "She is absolutely convinced she can win," one of her advisors told AFP. But polls still show the lingering stigma around the FN tripping her up, with her second-round rival, tipped to be Juppe, expected to easily defeat her. Convinced she can close the gap on a man who embodies the political establishment, Le Pen is continuing her drive to sanitise the FN's image.
Gone is the overt anti-Semitism and race-baiting of the past -- her rhetoric on Muslims and migrants is softer yet still resonates in a country and on a continent reeling from an unprecedented terror threat and the Syrian crisis. But she cannot escape her father's embarrassing comments that the Nazi gas chambers are a "detail of history" and her party's pledge to pull France out of the euro has drawn scorn from economists. The FN has blamed the EU for much of France's ills and pushed for a "Frexit" referendum on France's EU membership.