The American inner circle of France's far-right Marine Le Pen
When far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen Marine made it through to the run-off of the French presidential election on Sunday, some powerful people in the United States were celebrating.
From Trump Tower to the US Congress, Le Pen has established her own circle of trust in the United States. And though Le Pen and Donald Trump have yet to meet in person, the National Front (FN) candidate and the US president have more than a few things in common.
But they came very close to crossing paths in January.
“Welcome, welcome to Trump Tower,” said Italian-born George – or Guido – Lombardi as he opened the door to his one-bedroom flat on the 63rd floor. The view of Central Park was stunning, and until three months ago Trump shared the same vista, although three floors further up. First Lady Melania Trump and their son Barron still live in Trump Tower.
Lombardi hosted a fundraiser for Le Pen in this very apartment when Trump was still president-elect. She met businessmen, real estate brokers and potential donors. Among them were Americans, Israelis, Indians and Russians, according to Lombardi. Trump did not attend but the end result was satisfying to Le Pen: Lombardi suggested that she received numerous donations for her campaign.
“I made the introduction. I wasn’t witness to any check signing or anything like that. They had some meetings after, privately, which I wasn’t involved in. It may have happened afterwards,” said Lombardi, with a wry smile.
We spoke a week before the April 23 first round of the French presidential election. Donations to campaigns are anonymous in France, so there is no public record of which US persons might have helped Le Pen financially.
The only reason Le Pen and Trump did not meet? The media glare, according to Lombardi: “It was OK to be able to talk to some of Mr Trump’s staff but not necessarily for it to be in the media, because it would have been kind of not positive for either one of them,” Lombardi explained.
Aiding Europe's populists
When Trump moved to the White House, Lombardi may have lost a neighbour – but he has gained enormously in influence. He now spends weekends at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and was recently featured in a New York Times profile as the “point man for Europe’s populists”.
Lombardi proudly showed off his copy of the newspaper, as he does evidence of his friendships. Framed pictures of Trump, former US presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, and of a meeting with the Dalai Lama dotted the apartment, as did carefully placed books about the US president.
For the French run-off vote on May 7th, Lombardi will be in Paris. He said he wants to stay for Le Pen's inauguration.
Lombardi is indeed the US point man for Europe’s far-right politicians. His contacts include Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders and German far-right politician Frauke Petry.
To prove a point, Lombardi texted Le Pen in a WhatsApp group that includes her domestic partner Louis Aliot, who is also the National Front's vice-president. The reply came in: “Meeting Marseille.” She was busy campaigning. Lombardi proudly showed off his response: “Love” and a heart emoticon.
Lombardi builds bridges for Europe’s far-right leaders, mostly linking them with other right-wing politicians in the United States.
France 'will no longer be French'
A case in point is Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa. He was the first US member of Congress to publicly endorse Marine Le Pen for the presidency of France when he spoke to me earlier this month. King has spoken his mind since he was elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, but he now appears to do so with even more panache. His anti-immigration tirades are loud and proud. He is a man emboldened by the victory of Donald Trump. His support for Le Pen was the logical next step.
In his office – which sported a confederate flag on the desk and not one but three copies of Geert Wilders’ book, "Marked for Death: Islam's War Against the West and Me" – King waxed lyrical about Le Pen’s vision for France and for Europe.
King has met Le Pen twice, both times in Paris. He says Western civilisation is being eroded and only a Le Pen win can stop a situation in which “churches are being replaced by mosques”.
“I’m not one to give advice to the French, but I’m really glad that they produced a lady like Marine Le Pen,” said King. “I’m one who admires her love of her country, her love of French culture, the French language, the things that the French have to be proud of.”
For King, this presidential election is the last chance to stop what he calls “an almost uncontrollable immigration flow that must be controlled or France will no longer be French”.
But the Iowa congressman foresees an even bigger ideological clash: “I’m very concerned that our civilisation itself could be subsumed in a generation or two. Through that lens is how I see Marine Le Pen.”
“If we should lose France, and if we should lose several other countries throughout Western Europe, America will be next.”
King predicted a warm relationship between Le Pen and Trump: “As a duly elected president of France, I expect that very soon after that President Trump will want to meet with Marine Le Pen and I will predict they will become fast friends because they are birds of a feather.”
A quasi-endorsement from the US president came just days before the first round of the French election. "She's the strongest on borders, and she's the strongest on what's been going on in France," Trump said in an Associated Press interview. While declining to endorse Le Pen outright, he added: "I believe whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism and whoever is the toughest at the borders will do well at the election."
Polishing Le Pen's reputation
Le Pen has mostly refrained from criticising Trump, but she didn’t hold back when the US launched its first missile strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In an interview with French television, Le Pen didn’t hide her disappointment.
"I am a little surprised, because Trump had said repeatedly that he didn't intend the United States to be the world's policeman any longer and that is exactly what he did yesterday," Le Pen told the France 2 network.
There are other Trump supporters also looking out for Le Pen in Washington. Among them is Michael Flanagan, a former one-term congressman who told Le Pen’s advisers in France what could make her more popular in the United States.
Flanagan said he helps Le Pen’s team because he wants to. But if she paid him he would work considerably harder, he confided.
Flanagan sees his job as improving Le Pen’s tarnished reputation. Her controversial image precedes her, even in the United States.
Anti-Semitism was a hallmark of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s political life; he was a presidential candidate himself in 2002. Flanagan’s solution was to tell Le Pen’s advisers to get endorsements from Jewish leaders in France.
Roger Cukierman, the head of the Representative Council of France’s Jewish Institutions (Crif), famously said in 2015 that Marine Le Pen was "personally blameless” for the National Front's anti-Semitism but that the FN was “to be avoided as a party”.
“To their credit, they understood that and they got statements from Mr Cukierman and others in France to say very positive things about Ms Le Pen,” said Flanagan. “That helped a lot with their American counterparts.”
Flanagan said that Le Pen “welcomes the opportunity to talk with Trump, be with Trump and work on a warm relationship with Trump in the future”. He, too, is convinced she can win.
Flanagan had one more piece of advice for Le Pen: He suggested that she could be the person to repair the relationship between Russia and the United States.
“To make that marriage, so to speak, between the US and Russia might be something that France can do successfully, and I think Marine Le Pen would love to do that,” he said.
A French President Marine Le Pen acting as the go-between for Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump. That would have been an extraordinary thought just a few months ago.
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