Following Thursday’s terrorist attack on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, which killed one police officer and wounded two others, Donald Trump made a prediction. “The people of France will not take much more of this,” he wrote on Twitter. “Will have a big effect on presidential election!” It seemed like the American president was implicitly backing one of the leading candidates in that election, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who has campaigned on rooting out Islamic extremism from the Republic and practices a Trump-like brand of populist-nativist politics.
Then Trump dispelled any doubt about his message. The attack, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, will “probably help” Le Pen’s chances, the American president told the Associated Press, “because she is the strongest on borders and she is the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” (This despite the fact that the Champs-Elysees attacker was a French citizen ensconced well within French borders.) Trump didn’t explicitly endorse Le Pen. But he effectively endorsed her sales pitch to voters. “I believe whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism and whoever is the toughest at the borders will do well at the election,” Trump said.
It’s not unprecedented for the president of the United States to weigh in on an upcoming vote in another country; ahead of the Brexit vote, for example, Barack Obama traveled to London to urge Britain to remain in the European Union. (Now-ex-President Obama made his sympathies known in the current French election as well, participating in a delightfully awkward public phone call with the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.) What was most remarkable about Trump’s comments was, firstly, who he was praising: the far-right leader of a party with racist, anti-Semitic roots who enthusiastically supports Russian President Vladimir Putin and fiercely opposes free trade and the European Union—in other words, the avatar of precisely the policies to which the U.S. government has long objected. And, secondly, it was what Trump was suggesting: that a lone terrorist with a gun had the power to sway the course of one of the world’s most storied democracies and, perhaps, the future of Europe.
On the second point, Trump appears to have been proven wrong. On Sunday, in the first round of voting to elect the next French president, Macron eked out a victory against Le Pen and will now face her in a runoff election—results that mirror the way the polls looked just before the attack in Paris on Thursday. It’s too early to determine the extent to which the issue of terrorism influenced the vote. But what’s clearer is that the “big effect” Trump predicted never came.
It may have never come because, in the grim arithmetic of terrorism, the assault on police officers was minor relative to the massive attacks that France suffered in Paris and Nice in recent years (these bigger attacks did temporarily boost support for right-wing politicians like Le Pen). Many French voters, accustomed to news of terrorists incidents, may have placed the violence on the Champs-Elysees in perspective relative to issues such as the sluggish economy and high youth unemployment. Trump made no mention of the scale of Thursday’s attack.
But it also may never have come because the relationship between concern about terrorism and support for Le Pen isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. In the aftermath of Thursday’s attack, Macron urged the French not to give into fear and not to let terrorists destabilize the country, while Le Pen denounced Islamism as “a monstrous totalitarian ideology that has declared war on our nation.” There is more than one way to defeat terrorism. Trump didn’t mention that either.