There was a lot of talk about walls yesterday. The ‘anti-fascist protection’ one that came down in 1989, the year my son was born. The one that Trump has promised to build – and get the Mexicans to pay for. The one that Canada may need to hold back the tide of fleeing Americans. When Canada’s immigration site crashed sometime in the wee hours yesterday, well before the results were in, the writing was surely on the wall.
Sitting in France, working in Switzerland and with roots in Canada, I was surprised at how deeply affected we all were by the news that there would be a – gulp – President Trump.
We are not American, even though the US president is thought to lead the so-called ‘free’ world. My Canadian family and friends can rightly quake, living in the shadow of the giant and sometimes feeling a little like its 51st state. Culturally, we are distinct; economically, less so.
Switzerland is home to many expats, some of whom are my friends and colleagues. As much as I wanted the polls to be right, I had spoken to people – articulate, smart people – who admitted they would vote for Trump. I’d witnessed the hatred for Hillary, and the refusal of Trump supporters to take seriously any charges against him. What would it take, I wondered? Explicit evidence of child pornography? My gut told me the polls were a reflection of what the influencers wanted to see.
Here in France, as I listened to talk about the election results yesterday, I found myself thinking about the invisible wall that exists between us and the US. While there is a strong, longstanding friendship between the two countries, that barrier is real on so many levels – cultural, linguistic, political.
Watching a French TV panel that included Christine Ockrent, a respected journalist who is married to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) founder Dr. Bernard Kouchner, discussing Trump alongside a young blonde American member of the Republicans in France, that wall could not have been more evident. Although the American woman spoke French very well, the wall came down on the French faces as quickly and as surely as if a door had shut. Was it her very-American accent, her direct way of saying things or simply her open-faced support of the man who is perceived as a monster here in France?
Alongside her sat another woman, who had formerly worked for Hillary Clinton. Although these two women sat on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I was struck by the fact that they appeared to have more in common than they did with any of the French panelists. No matter what, Americans will proudly defend their country’s democratic process as being the expression of its popular will. The French, for all that they resist until death, will allow themselves to be led by their elected elites.
The wall is cultural, and it is also political. The French openly dislike anything so crass and populist and commercial as Trump. And although many will vote for Marine LePen and the far-right Front National, two things hold her back from ever becoming President: the first is class. She doesn’t have it. Nor does Sarkozy, which goes a long way to explaining why he was not re-elected and is unlikely to make a comeback. The second is that the political elites in this country, supported by the French people, will not allow it. The post-war fear of fascism is just too strong. So opposing political parties will band together in order to block what is seen as dangerous.
As much as this country has its problems, and you know that I have no hesitation in calling them out, the particular horror of a Trump in power would not happen here. Nor, with all due respect to my British friends, would a Brexit. But the two movements are not dissimilar, and that is another reason why it is frightening. Both seem to believe they can and should shut their borders, live as islands sufficient unto themselves. While this is harder to imagine in the UK, the potential economic fall-out from US trade restrictions is huge.
But whether or not they build any more walls, le mur is already there.