President Donald Trump told The Associated Press on Friday that the terrorist attack in Paris the day before would “probably help” Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of France’s National Front, win France’s upcoming presidential election. But experts say it’s unclear what kind of effect the attack will have on the vote, the first round of which comes Sunday.
The attack gave Trump an opening to praise Le Pen as the strongest possible candidate in the election, though he stopped short of a formal endorsement.
Le Pen is the “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” Trump said.
Trump’s comments came hours after he tweeted early Friday morning that the attack near Paris’ Champs Elysees — which left a French police officer dead and was quickly claimed by the Islamic State — would have a “big effect” on the French election.
Le Pen, who said on Friday that the fight against terrorism “must” be France’s “absolute priority” and has advocated for strict immigration control, has been steadily rising in French polls as her center-right opponent, Francois Fillon, battles corruption charges.
But JM Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism and the co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” said Trump’s predictions about the attack swaying the results of France’s election in Le Pen’s favor “sounds more like wishful thinking to me.”
Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst and the co-founder of the Search International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Intelligence Group, largely agreed that the attack would not be dictate the results of the election, even though that was likely the terrorists’ goal.
“The timing of the Champs-Élysées attack in Paris is remarkably similar to the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, which took place just three days before the country’s general elections,” Katz said. “However, the scale, circumstances, and surrounding political climates between the two attacks are very different. Therefore, whoever wins in France, it won’t be due to this latest ISIS attack.”
Berger added that Trump’s implicit endorsement of a candidate whose hardline views on terrorism and immigration align with his own “seems like a break with diplomatic protocol,” but probably wouldn’t have a “major impact on either the election or terrorism policy” given the “general recklessness with which [Trump] expresses himself.”
While some were quick to criticize Trump for implying in his tweet that a terror attack could impact the democratic process, analysts have warned that a last-minute event like a terror attack “could affect the final result” of the election, the Telegraph reported on Friday.
Recent history, however, doesn’t appear to support that analysis.
The Champs Elysees shooting is the latest in a series of attacks either claimed or inspired by ISIS in France in recent years. A truck plowed into people who had gathered to watch fireworks in Nice last year on Bastille Day, killing more than 80 people. Months earlier, coordinated attacks across Paris — at restaurants, a soccer stadium, and a concert hall — left approximately 130 people dead.
Le Pen’s party performed slightly better in the wake of those attacks, which occurred on November 15, 2015. But the party still failed to win any regions in the second round of voting.
It is unclear if the attack will affect the election’s other front-runner, Emmanuel Macron, who is considered a political novice. But French opinion polls “have consistently said that voters see unemployment and trustworthiness of politicians as bigger issues than terrorism,” according to Reuters.