After a shooting attack in Paris left one police officer dead and two others seriously wounded on Thursday, the President of the United States reacted with his characteristic blend of compassion and restraint.
First, President Donald Trump described the shooting as a “terrorist attack” less than one hour after it occurred, before local law enforcement had made any statement about motive one way or another. The following morning, he expanded on that remark by declaring the attack would “have a big effect on the presidential election.”
Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2017
The attack took place just days before the scheduled first round of voting in the hotly contested French elections. Trump did not specify what “big effect” he thought the shooting would have, but it’s easy to guess: His tweet was widely interpreted to be a tacit endorsement of National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, who is running on a platform of opposition to immigration and what she describes as the undue influence of Islam in French society.
In other words, the President of the United States is using a violent attack in an allied country as an excuse to meddle in that country’s domestic politics.
Le Pen — who succeeded her father, the crypto-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, as head of the National Front in 2011 — has courted Trump support in the past. After the U.S. elections in November, she described Trump’s improbable success as “a sign of hope for those who cannot bear wild globalization.” She was later spotted at Trump Tower in New York, though a Trump spokesperson said she had not met with anyone on the presidential transition team.
A Le Pen presidency would be a major coup for the transnational right-wing nationalist movement, of which Trump is another linchpin. Though she’s widely credited with softening the National Front’s image and obscuring its ideological roots in mid-century fascism, she’s also spent the final days of the French election turning back to her core message: Immigration is making France less French.
“Just watch the interlopers from all over the world come and install themselves in our home,” she told supporters at a rally on Sunday. “They want to transform France into a giant squat.”
Following the shooting on Thursday, she rushed to announce that “Islamism is a monstrous totalitarian ideology that has declared war on our nation, on reason, on civilization.”
But while Le Pen has been largely successful in shepherding the National Front toward the mainstream of French politics, she has struggled in the presidential polls over the last few weeks. That’s in part due to the rise of Emmanuel Macron, a former minister in the current Socialist government who is now running on a centrist, avowedly pro-Europe platform.
Trump’s tweet about the shooting’s “big effect” came the day after former President Barack Obama called Macron personally. Though the former president said in a statement that he would not make a “formal endorsement,” the call was a clear boost to the French candidate. The statement’s reference to France and America’s shared “liberal values” could also be read as a subtle dig at Le Pen.
If Trump is now trying to play the same game — implying support for the French election’s right-wing nationalist candidate in order to checkmate the centrist internationalist who Obama seems to back — it could very easily backfire. Obama is vastly more popular than Trump in France, and Le Pen’s ideological congruence with the U.S. president has thus far appeared to be more of a liability than a strength.
UPDATE: Later on Friday, Trump clarified to the Associated Press that he does, in fact, think the Paris attack will bolster Le Pen’s candidacy.
BREAKING: Trump tells @AP that Paris attack will “probably help” far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in France’s upcoming election.
— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) April 21, 2017