PARIS - It’s not often that a major ally calls the next potential United States president “sickening,” but that indeed was how French President Francois Hollande described the “excesses” of Republican candidate Donald Trump just a week ago.
In neighboring Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is striking a more diplomatic note, saying merely she is following the U.S. campaign “with interest.”
But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier calls Trump a “hate preacher,” while Italy’s Prime Minister Mateo Renzi has placed his bets squarely on Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
If the presidential campaign is polarizing America, it is also riveting Europe.
Mainstream leaders are following every dramatic and often unscripted Trump turn on issues such as NATO, nuclear weapons and immigration with concern and even fear, analysts say, even as populist parties are cheering his run.
“People are kind of stuck as slightly horrified spectators,” said Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the London-based Centre for European Reform. “Hoping that it turns out all right, but not having much influence over the outcome.”
Low confidence in Trump
A June poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found just 9 percent of Europeans had confidence in a Trump presidency, compared to 59 percent for Clinton, a known quantity here after her years as secretary of state.
Clinton’s chief handicap among U.S. voters, a popular perception she cannot be trusted, doesn't necessarily resonate in Europe. In France, for example, allegations of scandal have not stopped politicians such as former President Nicolas Sarkozy from eyeing another run for office.
“I don’t think trust is an issue so much in France as it is in the United States,” said Paul Godt, a former political science professor at the American University of Paris.
Europe’s parliamentary system also means voters tend to back parties, he says, rather than individuals.
After years of diplomacy, Clinton holds an advantage when it comes to European leaders.
“Many probably found her to be a reliable, steady interlocutor,” analyst Bond said. “From that perspective, the trust issue is a much bigger hurdle for Trump in terms of future relationships with allies, than it is for Clinton.”
That is especially the case when it comes to defense.
Trump’s nuclear stance, questioning why nuclear weapons cannot be used and suggesting new countries such as Japan and South Korea should adopt them, has sparked unease in a region haunted by its Cold War past and recent terrorist strikes.
Eastern European countries, in particular, reacted strongly to his suggestion the United States may not defend NATO allies who don’t pay their “fair share," not to mention his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the benefits of closer U.S.-Russian ties.
Recent remarks by a key Trump ally, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who described Estonia as a “suburb” of Saint Petersburg, have not helped.
“This really adds to the sense that something horrendous has happened to the Republican Party. This is not the party of Ronald Reagan standing in Berlin and saying, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,' ” analyst Bond said. “It’s not the party of George H.W. Bush dealing with the consequences of the Cold War.”
Trump has also criticized Germany’s refugee policy that saw the country take in nearly 1 million asylum-seekers last year, and predicted Merkel would not win reelection.
The German leader has offered a low-key response, telling reporters she did not want to “wade into the American debate.” But Foreign Minister Steinmeier has been more outspoken, accusing Trump of fear-mongering.
Trump has also ruffled feathers in the Britain, where the British parliament debated whether to ban him from entering the country, and its new foreign minister, Boris Johnson, described him earlier this year as unfit to be president.
Past leaders sparked concern
To be sure, the American business titan is hardly the only U.S. candidate who has sparked European jitters.
Three decades ago, many saw Republican hopeful Ronald Reagan as just another Hollywood star, overlooking his two terms as California’s governor.
Eyeing the presidency in the 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton was seen as an inexperienced Arkansan with an isolationist bent. Barack Obama, too, had little experience when he ran for the job eight years ago, as a mere junior senator from Illinois.
“Europeans have long considered Americans quite naive when it comes to politics,” Godt said. “So I don’t think that having someone unqualified running for president bothers them very much.”
Even so, Trump stands out, Godt and others say, with his rhetoric about immigration and Muslims resonating with populists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has built border walls to keep out illegal migrants, has described him as an "upstanding candidate.” Far-right politicians in the Netherlands and France also praise him.
"What appeals to Americans is that he is a man free from Wall Street, from markets and from financial lobbies and even from his own party," French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is eyeing her own presidential run, told Valeurs Actuels magazine, adding that if she were American, she would vote for Trump.
No wonder, perhaps, that some of the harshest anti-Trump rhetoric is coming from Hollande.
The French president faces reelection next year and is battling abysmal ratings and Le Pen’s sizeable appeal. “His excesses make you want to retch,” Hollande told French reporters of Trump.
“The last thing Hollande wants is Trump’s anti-Muslim views to become respectable, because they rather parallel the sorts of things the National Front has to say,” analyst Bond said. “The language may not be the same, but the appeal is.”