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World & Nation

Foreign leaders long refrained from commenting on U.S. elections. Then Trump came along.

Foreign leaders long refrained from commenting on U.S. elections. Then Trump came along.
French President Francois Hollande has voiced incredulity over Trump’s comments
(AFP Photo / Bertrand Guay)

In normal times, foreign governments -- particularly U.S. allies -- tend to refrain from commenting directly and publicly on American electoral politics. It’s a long-standing reciprocal custom; U.S. leaders generally take pains to avoid supporting or opposing a particular candidate in elections elsewhere.

So when the French president  pronounced himself nauseated by some of the Republican presidential nominee’s utterances, it raised the question: Will other foreign leaders who have felt insulted by Trump take off the gloves as well?

In the course of the campaign, Trump has affronted Mexico by declaring that he would build a border wall – and that Mexicans would foot the bill. He has accused Japan and South Korea of freeloading on defense. He’s questioned whether NATO allies are entitled to treaty-decreed U.S. military protection. He regularly threatens to tear up trade agreements.

But the response from overseas has been relatively muted, with many foreign leaders citing reluctance to interfere in the U.S. presidential race – even as their diplomats voice private incredulity over Trump’s latest declaration.

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Francois Hollande’s comments came Tuesday evening at a closed-door event for French journalists who cover the presidency, a clubby affair staged over drinks. It’s supposed to be off the record, but his remarks almost immediately escaped into the atmosphere.

The French leader, referring to the GOP candidate by name, used a term of disgust – haut-le-coeur, connoting a desire to retch or vomit – in response to Trump’s feud with the Muslim parents of a U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq.

“Some of his excesses make your stomach turn … especially when he speaks ill of a soldier, the memory of a soldier,” he said. Perhaps acknowledging the taboo-breaking nature of his own remarks, the French leader added that the U.S. election held fateful consequences for the entire world, not just Americans.

“Democracy is also at stake, as we see more and more people tempted by authoritarianism,” Hollande said.

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The French president wasn’t the first foreign leader to push back against perceived provocations  – or to cheer Trump on, as Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban has done. Trump has previously drawn criticism from Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, who implied in primary-season newspaper interviews that the Republican candidate has fascist tendencies. Hollande, too, has had unflattering things to say about the mogul-turned-politician as far back as June, when he told a French newspaper that a Trump victory would be dangerous.

But Hollande’s remarks Tuesday were unusually “vivid and direct and stark,” said Jeff Rathke, deputy director of the Europe program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

More typical has been the measured rejoinder delivered up by Berlin on Wednesday after Trump jeeringly predicted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would lose her job over her liberal immigration policies. “We don’t comment on the U.S. election campaign,” said government spokesman Ulrike Demmer.

Other foreign leaders have voiced deep concern over Trump’s positions without mentioning him directly, as Baltic leaders did last month when he implied he might abrogate NATO treaty obligations to defend them against potential Russian incursion.

Recent violent events in France have raised the political temperature, as comments by Trump appeared to fly in the face of worldwide expressions of sympathy and solidarity in the wake of the latest attacks claimed by Muslim militants.

Last week, after two teenagers pledging allegiance to Islamic State slit the throat of an elderly French priest as he celebrated Mass at a church in Normandy, Trump angered French officials when he suggested that “France is no longer France.” It is indeed, retorted Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Hollande, facing an uphill battle in elections next year, has been on the defensive over national security – public scrutiny that intensified after a Tunisian deliveryman killed 84 people in the Riviera city of Nice by barreling a commercial truck through a crowd of holiday revelers on Bastille Day. That attack was also claimed by Islamic State, although the assailant had shown no previous signs of embracing the group’s ideology.

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After Hollande’s outburst against Trump blew up on social media, the president’s camp showed little inclination to walk back the remarks.

On Wednesday, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told reporters that the American presidential campaign had generated some “extremely unusual types of comments” – widely interpreted as meaning there were no regrets emanating from Elysee Palace, the official presidential residence.

Le Foll pointedly observed that President Obama was particularly well-qualified to speak on the matter. A day earlier, Obama had declared that Trump was “unfit” to be the American president.

laura.king@latimes.com

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