You don’t have to be a women’s rights activist to see Hillary Clinton’s failure break through the world’s highest glass ceiling as a defeat for women everywhere, specifically for the hope that their gender would get a fairer share of political power and responsibility. But perhaps the greater setback to that cause came a few weeks before, on October 13, when the male-dominated United Nations General Assembly disregarded the claims of a broad field of women candidates to elect, by acclaim, Antonio Guterres as the UN’s next secretary-general.
Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, is the opposite of Donald Trump: He is a somewhat colourless career politician, a socialist, to boot. He is not known to be a sexual predator, and his views about women are rather more evolved that those of the American president-elect. (I know, that’s a low, low bar.) His profile on the world stage is nondescript, the very quality that also characterised his two immediate predecessors, Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan.
American voters only had one credible female candidate in the general election: The Green Party’s Jill Stein was never more than a joke. But the UN had several strong women to choose from: Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand; two Bulgarians, Unesco director general Irina Bokova and European commissioner for the budget, Kristalina Georgieva; former foreign minister of Moldova Natalia Gherman; and Argentina’s foreign minister Susana Malcorra. All the greater the shame, then, that the glass ceiling at the general assembly remains unbroken.
With a misogynist soon to occupy the White House, it’s worth a moment’s self-indulgence to think of what might have been. As recently as the start of October, there was the tantalisingly real prospect that, in addition to a female secretary-general, women would soon be at the helm of three out of the five countries which wield veto power in the UN Security Council. This fantasy became plausible in July when Theresa May became Britain’s prime minister; to come to full fruition, it would have required Clark, say, to succeed Ban, followed by a Clinton win on November 8, and finally, on Marine Le Pen being elected president of France next spring. Add to this Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, and we might have…
Ok, back to reality. Clinton’s defeat may have weakened Merkel, and at the same time improved the chances of Le Pen, whose politics in many ways mirrors Trump’s. Her ultra-Right-wing French National Front is unabashedly racist and xenophobic, and would like to abrogate treaties that bind France to the European Union. (Not Nato, though: Conveniently, Le Pen’s Gallic pride doesn’t require France to bear the responsibility of its own protection.)
Le Pen has welcomed Trump’s victory with enthusiasm, just as she did the “Brexit” referendum in June, when British voters elected to take their country out of the European Union. Both are good auguries for Le Pen’s own chances in the spring. Until recently, the conventional wisdom in France was that the National Front would fare better than before, perhaps getting a third of the vote and forcing a second round in the early summer. But at that point, the French tradition of Left and Right coalescing to keep out the extremists was expected to kick in, leaving Le Pen exactly where her father, Jean-Marie, was in 2002. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, is counting on this, and has embraced some of Le Pen’s positions in hopes of peeling away some of her supporters.
Now, however, there’s talk of a “Trump factor”, a coalition of traditional Right-wing voters and extremists gathering under Le Pen’s banner, leaving Sarkozy foundering in the manner of so many Republican Party stalwarts in Trump’s wake. (The incumbent, Francois Hollande, is held with such contempt across the political spectrum, his chances of re-election is infinitesimal.)
Le Pen told the BBC in an interview this week that Trump had “made possible what had previously been presented as impossible.” She sounded very Trumpesque throughout the interview, checking off issues he raised to such great effect in the US election: Economic disparity, the need for protectionism, an end to immigration, and the growing fear of Islam, especially in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on Paris and Nice.
For the world’s most powerful woman, a “Trump effect” on voters would be very bad news, indeed. An all-too-familiar wave of anti-immigrant sentiment is already hurting Merkel in the polls, and could leave her Christian Democratic Union vulnerable in Germany’s general election, scheduled for next autumn. The Alternative for Germany party, modelled loosely on Le Pen’s French National Front, has been drawing support for a populist platform laced with anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric.
Germans as a whole want to remain in the European Union (it helps that they practically run it), and generally approve of Merkel’s handling of the country’s economy for the past 11 years. But her warm embrace of Syrian refugees, acclaimed around the world, has been unpopular at home. As in Britain, France and other parts of Europe, anti-immigration feelings are often laced with growing Islamophobia.
Unlike Le Pen, Merkel has greeted Trump’s election with caution, congratulating the president-elect, but also reminding him of the democratic and humanist values that bind the US and Germany together.
What does Trump make of the two women whose political futures he might now influence? He has criticised Merkel’s immigration policies, but praised her leadership qualities. Le Pen doesn’t seem to have featured prominently in his thinking. That, at least, is about to change.
Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times