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After Trump's US upset, could France be next?

After Brexit and the victory of Republican Donald Trump, many in France wonder if the next stunning upset could be in their country. The presidential vote is just five months away and the far-right is polling strongly. 

Marine Le Pen, head of France's far-right National Front party, has been tweeting up a storm, morphing effortlessly from congratulating US President-elect Donald Trump even before US election results were announced to skewering her rivals at home. 

"We can make possible that which was impossible; what the people want, the people can do," was one of the far-right leader's latest warnings to a French political mainstream that may be the next target of voter ire.

After the Brexit referendum for Britain to leave the European Union and the US elections, many wonder if the next stunning upset could be in France, where the presidential vote is just five months away and Le Pen has been polling strongly for months. 

She is not the only one who may potentially gain ground. Politicians from far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon to center-right former-President Nicolas Sarkozy are all trying to tailor their political message to the outcome of the American campaign. 

"It's interesting to see how politicians here are turning Donald Trump's victory into arguments that go in their direction," said analyst Bruno Cautres, of Science Po's Centre for Political Research, in Paris. 

Lessons for France?  

The political angling comes after Trump's win blindsided many European leaders, who have warily congratulated the Republican while placing conditions on how they intend to work with him. 

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Merkel ready to work with US on basis of shared values

"This American election opens a period of uncertainty," said French President Francois Hollande, who later sent a letter that he was eager to start talks on key issues with a man he once described as sickening. 

The unpopular Hollande also had no qualms about drawing parallels between the electorate's mood in the United States and France.

 "The French must be told that Trump is what the extreme right could do tomorrow in France," Hollande is quoted as saying in last month's tell-all book, "A President Shouldn't Say That."

But what Hollande sees as a warning sign has been embraced by National Front leader Le Pen.

"The election of Donald Trump is good news for our country," she said at a press conference Wednesday, adding that she hoped it would lead to the death knell of a free trade agreement between the United States and Europe and to better relations with Russia. 

Remembering 2002 

In some ways, the scenario appears a throwback to earlier years, when Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, placed second in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections. The ingredients, then and now, were similar: voter discontent and a broad rejection of the status quo. 

Frankreich Jean-Marie Le Pen (AFP/Getty Images/A. Jocard)

Jean-Marie Le Pen was soundly beat in the 2002 presidential election runoff

The elder Le Pen was soundly beaten in the second round of polling. In what was seen as a referendum against extremism, voters from the right and left cast ballots massively for incumbent Jacques Chirac. Today, his daughter's statements are far less combative - and the National Front's anti-immigration, anti-Europe rhetoric is resonating strongly among an angry electorate. 

Other presidential campaigners are casting their own bait to a discontented public. 

Socialist Party candidate Arnaud Montebourg, a former economy minister, is an ardent defender of a "Made in France" industry and wants to restructure the European Union, which he likened to a "failed company."

Radical Left Front party leader Melenchon, also stumping in April's vote, is even more virulently anti-EU, and has railed against "neo-liberal globalization." Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who lost the Democratic primaries to Hillary Clinton, "would have won" against Trump, said Melenchon, who has been compared to the US democrat. 

Then there is Emmanuel Macron, another former economy minister, who is reveling in his quasi-outsider status despite having yet to declare his candidacy.

A first test of "Trump effect"

The blowback from the United States is perhaps being felt most immediately by the center-right, which holds primaries this month in France. 

US-Präsidentschaftswahl 2016 - Sieg & Rede Donald Trump (Reuters/C. Allegri)

Trump's shakeup of the political elite could resound on the other side of the Atlantic

Sarkozy, who is trailing, is banking on a Trump-like upset and has warned about the dangers of believing the polls.

Like Brexit, Trump's victory "expresses a desire for change," said Sarkozy, who backed Democratic Party nominee Clinton during the US race, even as his own rhetoric on immigration and Islam has tilted increasingly right. 

Still, analyst Cautres said "it will be difficult" for Sarkozy to sell his message of change given his insider status and criticism over his failed reforms as president. 

For his part, conservative front-runner Alain Juppe is drawing very different conclusions from the US results, despite his widely seen position as the "establishment" candidate. 

While acknowledging "two Frances" of winners and losers, at a Wednesday night rally, the former prime minister honed his campaign messages of moderation and reconciliation. 

"I say 'no' to divisions and demagoguery that pit French against each other," Juppe told supporters in Bordeaux in a not-so-veiled reference to Trump.

Science Po political scientist Etienne Schweisguth said Trump's victory needs to be put in a broader context.

"Trump's victory fits into the wider rejection in the West of globalization and its consequences," Schweisguth said. "We saw it in the United States, and we're seeing it in France with Marine Le Pen."

But analyst Cautres said the parallels between French and US voters only go so far. To be sure, many French voters are eager for change and dissatisfaction with the democratic system is profound. He also doesn't see voter dissatisfaction translating into a victory for Le Pen. For one, he said, the center-right will rally around the victor of the primaries and reject any alliance with the far-right. 

"The effect for the National Front will be more communications than tangible," he predicted of a Trump-driven bounce. 

Uncertainty over National Front 

"A Le Pen win appears excluded from this election," agreed Schweisguth. "For a large chunk of the electorate, voting for her is out of the question."

Yet on the streets of Paris, where most vote solidly left, some residents are not so sure. 

"There are people here who think exactly the same as in the United States, and the US election vindicates their opinions," said retired school teacher Maryse Pinheiro. "They won't hesitate in voting for National Front.” 

But another resident, Remy Hourcade, dismissed the prospects of a Le Pen presidency. 

"That's what people say, but I disagree," he said, before adding, "I tend to be very optimistic."

But he also acknowledged that his intuition hasn't always been on target.

"I didn't expect there would be Brexit and there was Brexit," Hourcade added.  "I didn't expect Trump, and there was Trump."

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