Last Week Tonight host John Oliver had a message Sunday night for the French: America and Britain failed to stop the rise of populism in their countries — don’t be the third.
“Britain and America fucked up. Don’t fuck up too,” he implored the French voting public, which goes to the polls this Sunday, April 23, in the first round of voting to elect a new president. Just barely leading the pack of candidates going into round one is the far-right populist Marine Le Pen of the Front National party, whose anti-immigrant, anti–European Union, anti-globalization stance has resonated with voters in much the same way that Donald Trump’s rhetoric did in the United States and the pro-Brexit voices did in the United Kingdom.
Oliver cheekily made the statement in French (with English subtitles), the image beamed out to television audiences in black and white, with the show host flanked by an accordion player and a French waiter, at a table set as though in a French bistro — white tablecloth, bottle of wine, and cigarette included.
The entire 18-minute segment is a meticulously detailed rundown of the French options going into both the first round of voting on April 23 — with 11 candidates — and the runoff election on May 7, which will be a contest between the final two candidates.
Oliver deftly lays out the main issues that have raised the stakes of the election: 10 percent unemployment, the terror attacks in Nice and Paris, and a current socialist president, François Hollande, whose approval ratings were so abysmal — 4 percent — that he declined to run again.
The real issue of the election, though, as Oliver underscores again and again, is the future of Europe and the need to stand up to xenophobia. That’s because Le Pen, the top candidate, has campaigned on a promise of yanking France out of the EU — with potentially disastrous consequences for the economic and political stability of Western Europe — and has consistently promoted ideas that are anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant.
Oliver talks up several of the candidates but spends the most time on the one you need to care about: Marine Le Pen
Oliver draws short profiles of several of the contenders — even giving short, hilarious breakdowns of the total noncompetitors like Jacque Cheminade and Jean Lassalle. Cheminade once “accused the queen [of England] of being involved in international drug trafficking” and has seriously discussed “colonizing Mars.” And Lassalle, seemingly forever clad in an actual black beret, is a character whose “entire life seems like an episode of So You Think You Can France,” Oliver jokes.
But Oliver spends most of the segment on Le Pen, the populist Front National candidate. Her father, Oliver explains — the founder of the FN — was a famous Holocaust minimizer who called the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps a “detail” of history.
Oliver goes on to show how Marine, the daughter, has tried hard to rebrand the party, successfully wooing voters who would never have approached her dad. But he then pulls several clips underscoring how her own xenophobia and anti-immigrant positions, such as her opposition to the Muslim headscarf and any visible religious symbols — including those of Sikhs and Jews — make her a very worrisome candidate, polished repackaging aside.
“Elegant presentation does not negate poisonous content,” Oliver says. “A Klansman is still a Klansman even if you slap a monocle and a top hat on him and give him a cane.”
To Americans and British, says Oliver, “This feels a little like déjà vu: a potentially destabilizing populist campaigning on anti-immigrant rhetoric who rages against the elites ... even as all the experts assure us that there is no way this can possibly happen.”
Oliver has a sober message in the end. Don’t be overconfident, he says: If French voters abstain and Le Pen’s supporters are motivated, her candidacy could turn into a presidency.
“We made populist nativist choices with Brexit and Trump, and to be honest, it’s not working out so great for us so far,” he says. “And now you have a populist nativist choice of your own. And just imagine how superior you can feel if you don’t make the same mistake that we did.”