Le Pen blasts EU, NATO, praises Trump
France's far-right presidential front runner Marine Le Pen sounded a full-throated rejection of global trade deals and multilateral governance, defending in soaring terms Thursday the importance of cultural identity and national independence.
In a keynote foreign policy speech in Paris, Le Pen offered withering criticism of the European Union and NATO and decried what she essentially described as Western meddling in countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Russia and Turkey that she claimed have increased instability, broken bilateral promises and betrayed the wishes of the people.
"I don't want to promote a French or a Western system. I don't want to promote a universal system," Le Pen told a packed audience of reporters, diplomats and supporters in an elegant conference hall near the Champs Elysees. "To the contrary, I want to promote a respect of cultures and peoples."
Le Pen's lofty discourse offered a stark counterpoint to the Front National's more abrasive grassroots image as an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, populist party. She described France under her governance as a champion of "oppressed people, which speaks out for the voiceless and carries something powerful and great."
She also took no questions and continued calmly on after a bare-chested Femen protester sought to interrupt her before being carried, still shouting, out of the room.
Scandal over EU funds
A pair of polls out Thursday confirmed Le Pen remains the favored candidate in a presidential race that has been full of surprises, despite being mired in an ongoing scandal over the alleged misuse of European Union funds to pay for several Front National staff. Still, almost every survey to date shows her winning the first round of presidential elections in April, but failing to prevail in a May runoff.
For 48-year-old Le Pen, Thursday's speech was the second chance in a week to burnish her foreign policy credentials. European leaders have snubbed her, but she had better luck earlier this week in Lebanon, where she met with the country's president and prime minister. She also stirred controversy by cancelling a meeting with the Lebanese grand mufti after refusing to wear a headscarf.
"Going to Lebanon showed she could look presidential," says Philippe Moreau Defarges, senior fellow at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. Noting the country was both a former French colony and held an important Christian community - a key theme for the National Front - he added, "it allowed Mrs. Le Pen to look like both a patriot and a Christian."
Old and new themes
Le Pen's address touched on some familiar themes, as she railed against the European Union, NATO and free trade. But she also waded into new territory - or at least offered new nuances - as she described forging a new relationship with Africa based on "frankness, respect and mutual cooperation."
Yet much of her discourse was thin on specifics. Le Pen called for environmental security without defining it, and did not address key issues like whether France would stick to the Iran nuclear agreement under her leadership or a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
"If you don't pay attention to the details and just listen to the rhetoric, it sounds very French, very classical legalism," Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, Paris office head of the European Council of Foreign relations think-tank, describing Le Pens traditional discourse.
"If you pay a bit more attention, it's a clear departure from the kind of mainstream foreign policy followed by France since the Cold War."
Hike in defense spending
On defense, Le Pen reiterated her distaste for NATO, instead calling for a policy based on French national interests and vowing to hike French defense spending to two percent of its GDP - increased to 3 percent by the end of her five-year term.
On the Middle East, she criticised western efforts to strike deals with Syria's moderate opposition - which ultimately "helped arm the Islamic State." She said cutting off relations with Damascus had been "more than an error" that made France, which has sustained three major terrorist attacks in two years, more vulnerable at home.
"How many attacks on French soil could relations with Syrian services have avoided?" Le Pen asked.
'Change of software'
She also renewed calls for forging better relations with Moscow, saying Russia had been "badly treated" by both the European Union and the United States. France's 2014 cancelation of a sale of Mistral warships to Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine, she said, was a case in point.
Not surprisingly, Le Pen had warm words for US President Donald Trump; she was among the first foreign politicians to hail his November victory, even before it was formally announced. Criticizing his predecessor Barack Obama for a failed foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, Le Pen predicted the current Trump administration would represent "almost a change of software that will not only be positive for the world, but positive for the United States."
Germany's Merkel targeted
But Le Pen spent a significant chunk of her discourse railing against the European Union with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as her biggest target.
"The conception of a failed Europe is carried by Mrs Merkel that defies understanding," she said of the German leader.
If elected, Le Pen vows to renegotiate a new deal with the European Union - and failing that, hold a "Frexit" referendum on leaving the bloc. Coupled with the Brexit referendum in the UK, the 28 member bloc is feeling the brunt of the nationalist surge. In nearby Netherlands, far-right politician Geert Wilders also leads the polls ahead of March elections, but given other parties' opposition to the anti-Muslim politician he would not be able to form a government.
"The question for Germany is do you make this a kind of causus belli or deal with the cards you have?" asked analyst Lafont Rapnouil. "Just as Brexit was not what all EU members wanted, you have to get the best out of it for both sides, and not some kind of sterile tit-for-tat."
"It will be a very difficult and cold relationship," Moreau Defarges of IFRI says of diplomatic ties between mainstream European leaders and Le Pen. "Of course, Mrs. Merkel or Teresa May will receive Mrs Le Pen as head of state. But it will be a big European crisis - an earthquake - if she's elected."
New relationship with Africa
Le Pen also said she would overhaul relations with Africa, breaking from France's "moralizing discourse" towards its former colonies and instead focus on "non-interference, which doesn't mean indifference."
She called for development assistance, particularly focusing on agriculture, and for maintaining a French military presence in countries like Mali, Chad and Cameroon which are all fighting militant Islam.
Yet that stance raises contradictions, Lafont-Rapnouil points out. France's African operations were realized in cooperation with the United Nations and with EU support - the very multilateral institutions that Le Pen rejects.
"How would that work," he asks, "if you have a National Front foreign policy which is not in favor of EU integration on defense - and which is not interested in the UN?"