President Donald Trump waded into France’s upcoming elections Friday, saying he believes an attack on police officers this week will help Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump said that while he is not explicitly endorsing Le Pen, the attack played to her strengths.
“She’s the strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” Trump said in the Oval Office interview. “Whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism, and whoever is the toughest at the borders, will do well in the election.”
US presidents typically avoid weighing in on specific candidates running in overseas election. But Trump suggested his opinion was no different from an average observer, saying, “Everybody is making predictions on who is going to win. I’m no different than you.”
Sunday’s vote is the first round in the French elections, with the top two candidates advancing to a winner-takes-all runoff on May 7. The high-stakes contest is viewed as something of a vote on the future of the European Union, with Le Pen calling for a referendum on France’s membership in the bloc.
Le Pen has also echoed some of Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration, calling for hardening French borders to stanch what she describes as an out-of-control flow of immigrants.
She has spoken of radical Muslims trying to supplant France’s Judeo-Christian heritage and, among other measures, has called for foreigners suspected of extremism to be expelled from the country.
Le Pen, a 48-year-old mother of three, has distanced herself from her father, National Front party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted of crimes related to anti-Semitism and mocked the Holocaust as a “detail” of history.
Nevertheless, earlier this month she denied the French state was responsible for the roundup of Jews during World War II, drawing condemnation from other presidential candidates and Israel’s Foreign Ministry. And her inner circle still includes old friends from her student days in Paris who were members of a radical group known for violence and anti-Semitism.
Former President Barack Obama has also gotten involved in France’s election, offering centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron his best wishes in a phone call Thursday, though he, too, stopped short of a full endorsement.
Macron’s team released a video recording of the call, a highly unusual move as conversations among different countries’ politicians are usually kept private.
A victory for Macron would be a vote of confidence in France staying in the EU. Obama, when he was in office, encouraged Britain not to leave, though it ultimately voted to do so anyway.
Trump backed Britain’s decision to exit from the EU and has also predicted that other countries would make similar decisions. Yet during a White House news conference Thursday, the president said he believed in a strong Europe.
“A strong Europe is very, very important to me as president of the United States,” he said.
Trump said he believed Thursday’s attack in Paris’s Champs-Elysees district that left a police officer dead would “probably help” Le Pen.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said Friday the gunman had a note with him defending the Islamic State group.
Earlier, the US president tweeted that the attack, claimed by the Islamic State, “will have a big effect” on the vote.
“Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!”
Trump tweeted hours after a gunman, identified as 39-year-old Karim Cheurti, shot dead a policeman and wounded two others on the world-famous Champs-Elysees boulevard.
The attack rocked France’s presidential race Friday with just days to go before one of the closest elections in recent memory.
Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Friday accused Le Pen of seeking to use the attack for political gain.
Cazeneuve, a Socialist, said Le Pen’s National Front (FN) “after each attack, seeks to exploit it and use it for purely political means.”
France is in a state of emergency and at its highest possible level of alert since a string of terror attacks that began in 2015, which have killed over 230 people.
The swift claim by IS indicated the group may have been trying to capitalize on the widespread attention from a high-profile attack at a time when Islamic extremism and security are at the center of France’s presidential campaign.