Coda — November 18, 2016, 3:35 pm

Le Trump

Marine Le Pen in the age of Trump

In France last week, newspapers fretted, “Will Marine Le Pen Be the French Donald Trump?” Le Pen—who for years, as head of the far-right National Front party (F.N.), has based her platform on populist nationalism—had seemed genuinely surprised by Brexit in June. For this stunner, her camp was better prepared. Le Pen made sure to be one of the first foreign dignitaries to salute the American victor. “Congratulations to the new president of the United States Donald Trump, and to the free American people!” she tweeted early Wednesday morning, before Trump had technically clinched the win. Her surrogates were ready with messages intended to build momentum from his success. “95% of the US media campaigned against Trump,” an F.N. mayor in northern France tweeted, adding, “Remind you of anyone?” Le Pen’s partner, Louis Aliot, who is an F.N. vice president, pitched the news in historical and revolutionary terms: “This upending will take place on a ninth of November, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall!” And Florian Philippot, another F.N. vice president and Le Pen’s top strategist, went viral: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.” By Sunday morning, when Le Pen gave an interview on the BBC, the slogan had solidified. “Clearly,” she said, “Donald Trump’s victory is an additional stone in the building of a new world, destined to replace the old one.”

When I interviewed Marine Le Pen almost exactly a year ago, it was a week after the November 13 attacks in Paris. Her party had suddenly found itself granted some credibility, as President François Hollande’s administration began co-opting a number of F.N. proposals for combating terrorism. “All these events signify that they’ve realized that the National Front is a great political force now, one that is totally inescapable,” Le Pen told me at the time. “They will no longer be able to treat us as a fringe movement.” She spoke with an overconfidence that suggested well-practiced propaganda, and I’m certain that not even Le Pen herself believed how quickly voters—first in the U.K., and then in the U.S.—would help make her case for legitimacy. (Le Pen, a much cannier politician than Trump, never endorsed him outright during the campaign, saying only, “I would vote for anyone before Clinton.”) Philippot quipped to me that members of the F.N. weren’t psychic, they had simply studied their positions carefully—on the damages of globalization and free trade, the instability that open borders and immigration would usher in—and the French people were taking note. “When I speak with our opponents about real problems, I don’t get a response,” he told me last winter. “They insult us, but they don’t respond. That’s because they no longer have the ability to debate us on the substance.”

Le Pen, who took over as the head of the F.N. from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011, won almost 18 percent of the vote when she ran as a first-time presidential candidate a year later. The party has since broadened its reach—under Marine’s leadership, the F.N. has picked up eleven mayorships and tripled its representation in regional councils, partly through her efforts to “dédiabolise,” or make the party appear more moderate—and she is expected to advance to the runoff in the presidential election that will be held next spring. But Le Pen has still been considered incapable of garnering the majority needed to win. Although she has tried to distance herself from the brazenly anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric that her father promoted, her platform remains a dog whistle to the vehemently anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, who have always formed the F.N.’s base. Now, however, the election of Trump makes her ascendancy imaginable. “It allows her to say, ‘Look, my ideas are spreading around the world. Trump won this big victory in a big democracy—we can too,’” Nonna Mayer, a political scientist at Sciences Po, told me. Mayer has been studying the F.N.’s electorate and rhetoric for decades. She also noted that, like Trump, Le Pen gains strength from claiming to be an outsider. “The left and the right have been in office and even governed together in France—they are worn out,” she said. “Le Pen can say, ‘You’ve tried them both and they did nothing for you. Try us.’”

Resentment toward career politicians is potent and perhaps even more deeply rooted in France than it is in the United States. Functionaries are a class defined and regulated by laws of the state, i.e., themselves. Only 8 percent of French citizens say they trust political parties, and 88 percent believe the political class doesn’t care about people like them. “I can feel so much anger in the country,” Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the École Polytechnique who recently published a book on the discourse of French national identity, told me. “There is rejection of all sorts of traditional authority. People think establishment figures are all lying. And there is a rejection of some forms of political reality—all sorts of dodgy websites that part of the electorate believe are saying more true things than traditional media.” President Hollande’s Socialist government is the most unpopular administration of the postwar era; one columnist recently joked about sending Hollande to “prison for mediocrity.” Among the mainstream-right party, Les Républicains, the lineup for the presidential election opens like a high-school yearbook of the establishment: Alain Juppé, a former Prime Minister and current mayor of Bordeaux, is expected to win the primary. He is seen as a moderate and a unifier—the likely next president—and has been in politics for several decades, yet he presents himself as a new figure, especially to young voters who don’t recall his time in national government during the Nineties. (“It’s mad but true,” Martigny said.) In the last few days, Juppé’s challenger François Fillon, another former Prime Minister, has climbed in the polls. And on Wednesday, Emmanuel Macron, a thirty-eight-year-old former economy minister, announced his candidacy as an independent; while he offers a young, modernizing, and optimistic voice, he will have a hard time distancing himself from his classically establishment background. Juppé’s main competitor is the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been running such a stridently nationalist campaign that Jean-Marie Le Pen recently declared him to the right of his daughter.

Martigny observed that Trump’s victory could, hypothetically, drive the French to seek balance and stability in Juppé. But taken together, Trump and Brexit herald “the assertion of strong powers like Russia,” he told La Croix, a French newspaper. The message received by the French may be: “The world is harsh and requires, in response, someone who is capable of confronting these powers,” he explained. “Not a naïf.” When we spoke, Martigny said that the same logic could benefit Sarkozy, “someone to talk to Trump, Putin, or Erdo?an.” And this is a moment for fervor. “When Sarkozy gets out of his rallies, he’s sweating through his shirt,” he told me, and voters may decide, “okay, he’s saying dumb things, but he wants it.”

Comparing the French and American electorates is, of course, an imperfect analogy. Trump was a mainstream-party candidate; Le Pen and the F.N. are not. Trump won over voters in rural and exurban areas feeling abandoned by government elites and, Martigny pointed out, though this has been the mood in France for a long time, the F.N. hasn’t managed to seize power on the national level. The party has taken over several towns in northern France—such as Hayange and Hénin-Beaumont, which I visited last year, where mining and manufacturing industries have been hollowed out—and in the south, where the party’s traditional base is. But those victories remain few in number.

It’s too early to offer serious predictions of what will happen, especially since we have learned to be skeptical of polls. French pollsters are concerned about how a surging far-right, along with the introduction of open primaries for Les Républicains this year, will affect their accuracy. For the moment it seems that a Sarkozy-Le Pen face-off in the présidentielle might be the only scenario in which she could prevail—and by default, as many left-leaning and moderate voters would almost certainly choose to stay home. If Juppé wins, his calm appeal may abet much fiercer currents building beneath the surface of the French right and within the F.N.—Marine Le Pen is seen by some in her party as too moderate, and they prefer her niece, Marion, a darling of Steve Bannon. Bannon’s Breitbart—he remains its executive chairman while he begins to serve as Trump’s chief strategist—has just announced plans to expand into France; this week, Marion is in Moscow for a meet-and-greet with Russian officials. “So, this is a Europe-wide revolution?” the BBC interviewer asked Marine on Sunday. Le Pen shook her head and gave a faint smile. “It’s a global revolution.”

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More from Elisabeth Zerofsky:

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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