Biden looks to French elections to boost his political case — but it’s complicated

July 11, 2024
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WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden faces increasing calls to leave the presidential race from members of his own party, he’s sought to bolster his case for staying in by pointing across the Atlantic Ocean to another election that defied dire polling and panic on the center and left.

Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday, one day after France’s right-wing National Rally party and its allies finished third in seats won in France’s snap parliamentary elections, Biden contrasted the French result with his own election this fall. The right lost despite leading after first-round voting and in public opinion polls.

“France rejected extremism,” Biden said. “Democrats will reject it here as well.”

Biden reiterated the point on a call with some of his biggest campaign donors and backers that same day, as a person on the call told NBC News. “One of the things that’s happening around the world is the extreme right, the extreme MAGA conservatives of France, the [Marine] Le Pen party and others, they’re getting killed, they’re getting kicked because people are going, ‘Whoa, we’re not going there,'” Biden said, according to the source. (His comment was first reported by The New York Times.) 

But France’s vote wasn’t as simple as the narrative Biden served up. The elections were a rejection of the far right but also of French President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist coalition. It’s the latest data point in a trend that is ricocheting around the world — one that experts say should have Biden very concerned. Voters, dissatisfied with the post-Covid economy and, in some cases, angered over influxes of immigrants, are dealing incumbents setback after setback at the ballot box.

And as Biden confronts intense political backlash following his dismal debate performance last month, surveys show American voters expressing similar dissatisfaction with the status quo, which has helped former President Donald Trump build narrow polling leads nationally and in battleground states.

“It’s a bad time to be an incumbent,” said Ian Bremmer, president and founder of the Eurasia Group, a geopolitical risk firm, adding that electorates around the globe are pushing for change. “No matter what you think of Biden’s record, no matter how much you think he accomplished, this is just a hard time for an incumbent to win.”

In France, Macron’s Ensemble alliance won far fewer seats than it did in 2022, finishing second to the left-wing New Popular Front. National Rally won its highest-ever seat total, as well as a plurality of the vote — a point Trump was quick to highlight on his Truth Social page Monday. (Still, National Rally’s vote share only translated to a third-place finish in actual parliamentary seats, due to strategic voting from the center-left.)

Across the English Channel days earlier, voters in the United Kingdom ejected the Conservative Party from power for the first time in 14 years, with the left-of-center Labour Party winning an overwhelming victory. In both cases, deep dissatisfaction with incumbents led to sweeping change.

Richard Haass, president emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations, said these contests and recent elections in India and South Africa serve as “a warning that Joe Biden is highly vulnerable as an incumbent at a time of high dissatisfaction, something that may lead many to either stay home or vote for Donald Trump.”

“The ‘age’ issue only makes a bad situation worse for Biden,” Haass added.

Biden allies who spoke with NBC News said there were differentiating factors in the U.S. that had them feeling more positive.

For one, the U.S. economy is stronger than the economies across Western Europe — even as many Americans are expressing similar levels of dissatisfaction. Biden backers predict that as the economy continues its post-Covid rebound, that sentiment will bounce back as well ahead of November. What’s more, Trump, a former president who has inspired deep feelings in the American electorate, is no blank slate or relatively lesser-known challenger like other incumbents have faced. Different electoral and governmental systems can’t be discounted, either. 

“Folks have been looking for signs to confirm what they’re looking to report,” said David McGonigal, an associate director at National Security Action, a group that seeks to boost Biden’s foreign policy agenda. “People are very eager to write off Democrats in November, to say that elections abroad are spelling bad news for Biden’s chances in November. This is at least one piece of evidence to the contrary.”

Bremmer said the anti-incumbent energy is strong enough that it could engulf not only Biden but a potential replacement, should Biden depart the race, because voters may tie them together. At the same time, he said the U.S. could “easily be an exception” to this trend because of the deep political divisions that exist there.

“So few seats and so few votes are actually up for grabs,” Bremmer said. “And because Trump is almost uniquely unpopular as an outsider.”

The international right has amassed new clout amid the wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. Nigel Farage, a Trump ally and darling of the right wing, saw his Reform U.K. party capture roughly 14% of the vote in the United Kingdom, winning seats in Parliament for the first time. In last month’s European Parliament elections, Germany’s far-right AfD party saw huge gains, as did National Rally, which sparked Macron to call the snap domestic elections.

Meanwhile, right-wing parties throughout Europe are seeking to form a coalition that could increase their influence in that body should it be formally recognized by the European Parliament.

“The tide is rising,” Marine Le Pen, National Rally’s longtime leader, said following the French vote Sunday. “It didn’t rise high enough this time, but it’s still rising. And as a result, our victory, in reality, is only delayed.”

Macron’s move to call snap elections after National Rally’s surge in the European Parliament elections amounted to a gamble that French voters would not want to hand over power to the untested and staunchly anti-immigrant right-wing party, particularly with the Olympics about to get underway. 

National Rally’s momentum was thwarted when left-wing and centrist candidates across the country put aside differences and urged unity against the far right, a long-standing practice in France referred to as the “cordon sanitaire.” Many candidates ended up dropping out of three-way races, giving their left-wing or centrist opponent a bigger lane to keep the right-wing candidate at bay.

But with Macron’s group losing 76 seats and finishing third in the popular vote, it was clear the electorate wasn’t very interested in maintaining the status quo even if it also wasn’t game to elevate the National Rally to power.

“With this vote, whether on the right or on the left, [people] were very strongly against the establishment,” said Alexandre Pesey, founder and executive director of the Institut de Formation Politique, a conservative training institute in Paris.

Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to the U.S., said the political realities in France and the U.S. were “striking” in their similarities.

“It’s the same rebellion of 35% of our citizens who are simply saying: ‘We want to toss the table. We don’t have access to the table anymore,'” Araud said. “The problem is we, the elite, we really shouldn’t really frown upon these people. They feel our contempt. And in a sense, they are rejoicing at our anger or our grief. All our indignation is rejoicing them. So in a sense, we really should listen to them.”

Even as both Macron and Biden pursued immigration policy changes — though not as substantial as their right-wing critics have advocated for — their actions have swayed few on the issue. Pointing to other policy initiatives, Araud said Biden and his administration have sought to address the concerns of disaffected people.

“The problem is, the Biden administration has tried to respond to their concerns with reindustrialization, with the Inflation Reduction Act,” Araud said. “Apparently, it doesn’t work.”

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