Trump, Twitter and Protectionist Rhetoric in the French Presidential Race

French presidential candidates Arnaud Montebourg—a strong contender in the left primaries—and Marine Le Pen—the uncontested leader of the National Front—seem to believe in the magic of US President-Elect Trump’s tweets as much as he does himself. And they aren’t wasting any time trying to share in the spotlight created by them.

After Trump took credit for Ford’s decision to call off its plans for a $1.3 billion factory in Mexico, choosing rather to invest $700 million in a Michigan factory, Le Pen reportedly said on January 4, 2017, to journalists, “Political will pays. The proof is what Donald Trump obtained.” She connects Trump’s vision with her own. “Protectionism works, when it is led by determination, and when a country can exercise its economic independence.”

Reports of what Montebourg actually said are not clear. The Associated Press quoted him as exclaiming, “I see that Donald Trump used the Montebourg method!” However, with no other media quotes available, the one short clip I found had him saying something more akin to, “He has taken some of my themes, because I came before him in politics.”

The two have often cited American examples of trade and industrial policy to defend their own protectionist positions. Montebourg compared his proposal of reserving 80% of government procurement for French SMEs to those laid out in the Small Business Act of 1953 and similar legislation onwards. The National Front likes to point its finger at the Buy America(n) provisions that allegedly give the United States an advantage over French companies who seek American infrastructure contracts.

The appeal of such arguments is two-fold. The reciprocity of doing unto the US what the US does unto France makes them seem tough and willing to take on unfair competition—in the same vein as Trump’s blaming of China, though not as dominant. The second objective is to poke a hole in the narrative of the United States as a country that practices what it preaches. Rather than playing by the rules of open, free trade, it’s real economic prowess would stem from its bare-knuckled protectionism it has been practicing in the shadows.

Questions of the validity of those arguments are for another blog entry. For example, the quotas in American rules that protect critical infrastructure from foreign investment can be interpreted very loosely and, unless I’m mistaken, reach nowhere near the 80% Montebourg is promising. What’s interesting is how willing these two foreign presidential candidates are to lend credence to the myth that Ford’s production strategy follows Trump’s whims at the stroke of a key.

In an article portraying it as a victory, even Fox News conceded the following, “Fields (Ford CEO) said Ford would have gone ahead with the decision whether or not Trump was elected president.”  The article then went on to describe the news as “the latest in a string of pre-inauguration successes for Trump in the manufacturing sector.”

So, victory is claimed in favor of a man who is not yet President, for an event that would have happened regardless of him winning the election. Granted, CEO Fields did cite Trump’s “pro-growth” policies as encouraging. But if he admits that his move would have happened with Clinton in line for the Presidency, the moral of the story is clear: Companies that want to succeed in Trump’s America are going to have to do everything necessary to flatter his ego and play to his own communications strategies.

In a recent article for Slate, Daniel Gross explains the factors behind the forces that would have led Ford to redirect capital to Michigan. The marked trend for cars with high-tech equipment and greener motors requires a level of R&D most easily found in the US.  But, especially for Ford, it’s also because the Department of Energy Loan Guarantee Program, made available to automakers by the Bush administration, and carried on by Obama, was provided for “batteries, electrification and fuel efficiency.” Ford, the only one of the Big Three to take advantage of this program, took out a loan of $5.7 billion in 2009 and used it to upgrade 13 factories.

These programs resemble more what the EU’s Juncker Plan was meant to put in place—providing public funds to secure private investment for innovation, green technology and infrastructure—than the sort of protectionism that Montebourg and Le Pen seem to find attractive in Trump’s proposals and rhetoric. Not exactly an observation either of these two candidates would be willing to concede, though Montebourg has proposed a sweeping national stimulus plan that many critics have doubted would fly under the EU’s budgetary rules.

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