On April 10, French voters whittled down 12 presidential candidates to leave incumbent leader Emmanuel Macron and far-right politician Marine Le Pen in the race. Voters will return to the polls on April 24 to decide who will hold the position not only as leader of France but also as a key powerbroker within the E.U. as it faces one of its biggest challenges in recent history: how to handle Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
Le Pen is seen by many as an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Macron has attempted to de-escalate the conflict with regular calls with the leader. Their different approaches mean the result of France’s election will have implications for the security of Ukraine and E.U.rope as a whole.
Who is Marine Le Pen and what are her views on Russia?
Le Pen is leader of France’s nationalist, far-right National Rally party. Since taking over control of the party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011, she has attempted to soften its xenophobic image and in 2018 she changed the party’s name from National Front, which has long been associated with racism and antisemitism in Europe, to National Rally. In 2017, she went head-to-head with newcomer Macron in the second stage of the French election. Although Macron won a decisive victory, Le Pen succeeded in bringing the National Rally, and its radical policy ideas, to the mainstream conversation.
Le Pen has indicated she wants closer ties with Russia. Ahead of the French election in 2017, Le Pen had an audience with Putin at the Kremlin. Russian news agency Tass reported that she criticized E.U sanctions against Russia in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “unfair and silly.” She still has a photo of her 2017 visit to the Kremlin on her campaign website.
In an interview with French channel BFM TV in 2017, she reiterated her support for Russia’s actions in Crimea, saying, “I absolutely disagree that it was an illegal annexation. A referendum was held and residents of Crimea chose to rejoin Russia.”
It also emerged that the party she leads accepted Russian loans worth €11 million ($12 million) in 2014, €9 million of which came from First Czech Russian Bank, which has links to the Kremlin. The negotiations over the loan coincided with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the BBC reported. Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, an energy consultant turned Member of the European Parliament who brokered the loan, told the BBC that the two events were in no way related. “Always Marine Le Pen, and Jean-Marie before, was for cooperation with Russia,” he said. “It was not a political loan. It was a commercial loan.”
Since her defeat in 2017, Le Pen has toned down her support for Putin in an effort to win the support of swing voters. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Le Pen denounced the aggression as “a clear violation of international law and absolutely indefensible.” She also justified her 2017 visit to the Kremlin: “The Vladimir Putin of five years ago is not exactly that of today.”
Shifting her position on Russia won Le Pen greater support among voters, says Tara Varma, head of European Council on Foreign Relations Paris, a European security and foreign policy think-tank. In comparison to her rival on the far-right, Eric Zemmour of the Reconquête party—who called for Ukrainian refugees to stay in Poland instead of coming to France—Le Pen’s response seemed measured. “She understood that it was a more sensitive topic, and started saying that she would accept refugees,” Varma says. “She appeared a lot more stateswoman-like, and this is when support for her basically surged in the polls.”
This, says Varma, is part of a wider strategy by Le Pen to be “discreet” about her support for the Kremlin for the sake of winning public approval. Varma believes that if Le Pen is elected president on April 24, she would “overturn the current French policy on Russia.”
What is Emmanuel Macron doing about the war in Ukraine?
Macron has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and introduced a raft of sanctions, including on oligarchs with assets in France. As details emerged of alleged Russian war crimes, including the killing of civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, Macron called for a new round of tougher measures.
Le Pen has said that while she broadly agrees with Russian sanctions, she is opposed to those on oil and gas. “I do not want French people to suffer the consequences of sanctions” on fuel, she told France Inter Radio April 12. Macron’s rival has campaigned on the promise of improving French people’s quality of life while reducing individual taxes.
A month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, France took over the rotating presidency of the E.U., affording Macron the opportunity to play the bloc’s unofficial leader. The ardent Europhile has maintained close ties with various leaders across the political spectrum throughout his presidency, and prior to the war had cultivated a diplomatic relationship with Putin.
Following his win in 2017, Macron invited Putin to the French palace Versailles, where the pair had a “frank, sincere dialogue” on issues including Syria and Ukraine. Russia’s ambassador to Paris, Alexandre Orlov, reportedly told the RIA Novosti agency that the meeting signaled “a new departure in our relations…It seems that between Macron and Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], there are many common points, and they should be able to understand each other well.”
Since then, Macron has maintained an open line of communication with the Russian president. In the lead up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Macron flew to Moscow in an attempt to dissuade Putin from launching an attack. According to Reuters, Macron was taken aback by Putin’s fixation on historic grievances in the region, and was unable to de-escalate tensions.
Macron spoke with Putin over the phone at least 11 times in the lead up to and aftermath of the first assault on Ukraine Feb. 24, Politico reported. France’s Elysée presidential palace has published summaries of the correspondence.
Political analyst Varma believes that Le Pen will try to play Macron’s history with Putin to her advantage. “She’s trying to preempt criticism [of her own ties to Putin],” Varma says. “So instead she’s been commending Macron’s efforts in extending a hand to Putin.”
Macron faces an uphill battle—only one sitting president since 1988 has survived a re-election campaign. The former investment banker has struggled to shake off his label as “president of the rich,” with a track record for cutting corporate taxes and wealth tax on individuals. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, Macron lost votes in the first round to the far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came a close third after Le Pen.
Yet, Macron is still on track to beat Le Pen, according to polls—but by a very slim margin. On the question of Ukraine, Macron is in a position to use his foreign policy experience to his advantage, says Varma. “He’s found himself in a position to say, well, actually, I have tried everything. And in the face of a closed Putin, there’s nothing else to do but deliver weapons to Ukraine and implement sanctions.”
What could a Le Pen victory mean for NATO and the E.U.?
Le Pen has in the past called for France to withdraw from NATO’s integrated command, “so as to be no longer caught up in conflicts that are not ours.” She later pledged not to take France out of the military alliance before the end of the Russian war in Ukraine, but has called for closer ties between NATO and Russia once the war is over. On April 13, as she outlined her foreign policy plan, Le Pen reiterated this point and said that if she is elected France’s president, she would take the country out of NATO’s integrated command structure, in order to restore French sovereignty on international security matters.
“She doesn’t believe in the multilateral system, doesn’t really believe in cooperation,” says Varma. “She has a purely transactional and unilateral logic. She only wants to implement policies whose sole purpose is to be in the interest of France.”
Le Pen, who was known for her euroskeptical stance during the last election, has abandoned her pledge to withdraw France from the eurozone and softened her rhetoric on the E.U. Although she hasn’t ruled out leaving the union, she has indicated that her aim is now to “transform it from the inside,” says Varma, moving away from an integrated, federalist union towards what Le Pen has called an “association of free nations.” She has campaigned on a pledge to cut France’s contributions to the E.U., and insists that French law should prevail over E.U. rules.
Le Pen has also aligned herself with another Putin sympathizer in the authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who won a fourth consecutive term April 3. Le Pen congratulated Orbán on his win, posting on social media: “When the people vote, the people win!” Election filings published in March revealed that Le Pen received a €10.7 million personal loan for her campaign from Hungary’s state-backed MKB Bank which has ties to Orbán.
Orbán has repeatedly gone against the E.U.’s core values, having remodeled the Hungarian constitution to concentrate power in his party, filled the judiciary and other public bodies with allies, and introduced discriminatory laws. Hungary benefits from E.U. funding, and he hasn’t gone so far as to withdraw from the bloc. Afraid that other rebellious countries may follow suit, the E.U. has begun a process of withholding money from Hungary in response.
Like Orbán, Le Pen now recognizes the potential to challenge the E.U. without actually leaving it. If elected, Le Pen could seek to establish a formal alliance with Hungary, Russia, and other countries with authoritarian tendencies This, says Varma could cause “a domino effect” which “could give countries in the E.U. that were a bit reluctant to implement the sanctions [against Russia] an opportunity to renege on their commitments.”
“If her election were to occur,” Varma says, “in addition to this dangerous alliance with Orbán, it could actually cause a massive breach in European unity and of course in transatlantic unity.”
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