Emmanuel Macron, 2014
Emmanuel Macron, December 2014

In France, Would a Macron Victory Spell Defeat for Putin? Or a Shift to ‘Multipolarity’?

May 05, 2017
Mathew Burrows

Media reports from Paris to Washington have heralded Emmanuel Macron’s likely victory in the French presidential election as a defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Would it be though? While France’s leading candidate has been far less supportive of Moscow than some of the runners-up, his comments on Russia in recent years can hardly be called hawkish. In Macron Moscow may yet find a French leader of a more Gaullist persuasion—one who believes that France and Russia should strive for good ties and open channels of communication, though not at the cost of a weakened Europe. Washington, too, can expect the French frontrunner to vigorously defend a strong, autonomous Europe, while maintaining traditional alliances and perhaps forging new ones. That said, even if Macron wins the May 7 run-off as expected, his impact on foreign policy may be limited, or shaped, both by his lack of experience in this sphere and by a strong focus, at least initially, on domestic affairs.

Russophobia Can Be Relative

Macron’s positions on Russia have often been juxtaposed with those of his top competitor in the presidential race, Marine Le Pen, who has gone out of her way to align herself with Putin, meeting him in Moscow barely a month before the first round. Le Pen secured millions of euros in Russian loans, reportedly approved by the Kremlin, and also followed Moscow’s line in criticizing the recent U.S. aerial attacks on Syria in reprisal for its alleged use of chemical weapons. She makes no bones about calling for an end to Western sanctions against Russia and has no compunction about saying that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was legitimate. Unlike Macron, Le Pen vigorously opposes both NATO and the European Union, alliances that Moscow has found irksome to say the least. 

Le Pen’s statements are certainly music to Kremlin ears, but Russia has more at stake than just getting a rollback on sanctions. It seems that Putin saw in Le Pen a way to shake up the establishment of a Western power and up the chances for redesigning the post-Cold War order with Russia’s position being taken into account.  We’re unlikely to know whether this calculus would have held up because, even if Le Pen manages to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on May 7, it’s not clear she could ever carry out her desire of taking France out of the Eurozone, let alone the EU. Le Pen has little chance of engineering a majority in the National Assembly. In any case, she has vowed to put any departure from Europe to a referendum vote, where it would be defeated and would thus only serve to heighten French and European animus toward Russia, with Le Pen seen as Putin’s puppet.

How Anti-Russian is Macron?

Macron, the candidate, has been harsh on Moscow. His campaign has accused Russia of hacking its computer systems and spreading fake news to hurt his chances in the race. Macron’s camp complained, for example, that the Kremlin-funded Sputnik news agency had claimed Republican candidate Francois Fillon was ahead in the polls when he clearly wasn’t; as a result, France’s polling watchdog issued a warning to Sputnik. Later Macron’s campaign refused to give press passes to journalists from the agency and from another Kremlin-funded media outlet, RT. Overall, the alleged Russian hacking and disinformation campaign in the presidential race have not dominated headlines in France as they have in the U.S. Nevertheless, the periodic surfacing of the charges and the Macron campaign’s finger-pointing at Moscow have left the impression of a Macron dead set against Russia. 

But the Macron who went to Moscow in early January 2016 left a different impression. As a smiling economics minister, yet to declare his candidacy, he emphasized the “objective we all share … to lift sanctions” against Russia, although he linked such a move, as he still does, to implementation of the Minsk peace accords. In November 2016, after he became a presidential candidate, Macron promised, in the words of the Associated Press, “to reopen discussions with Russia [on Syria] and to make the fight against the Islamic State group a priority,” a goal often articulated by Moscow. He told journalists that getting rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Russia has propped up, should not be a precondition for trying to end the war, and he criticized France’s then-President Francois Hollande for forcing Russia away from Europe and closer to Asia. 

More recently, Macron’s pronouncements on Russia and Putin have been similar to his “neither right nor left” pledge to voters on domestic policies: He has claimed he would not give in either to those who want to escalate tensions with Russia or to those who want to close their eyes to meaningful differences. In the sole debate of the presidential run-off, on May 3, Macron said he is willing to work with Russia on issues like Syria, but “will not submit to Russia or Mr. Putin’s values, as they are not the same values as ours.” He also reiterated a point made in an interview before the election’s first round: that he would be in a better position to deal with Putin than his competitors because, unlike them, he is not beholden to the Russian president. None of this amounts to an endorsement of Putin, but it’s not the full-blown rejection suggested by media headlines.  

One of Macron’s advisers told me that the man forecast to become France’s next president hasn’t thought that much about foreign affairs. Having been an economics minister, his passions lie elsewhere. If there are indeed points on which Macron hasn’t made up his mind, that means he can be persuaded. The Kremlin has likely taken note of that fact. Digging deeper into Macron’s platforms, one finds another bit of welcome news for Russia: He is against the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia in NATO. (He is also refloating the idea of a European defense, coordinated with but separate from NATO so as to better ensure European autonomy.) 

How Will France Shape the EU-Russia-US Triangle?

Macron’s positions smack of Gaullist independence, though with a bigger dose of Euro-centrism. No doubt, his initial energies in foreign policy—should he be elected—will be poured into rebuilding the traditional Franco-German motor of European integration to make Europe a stronger player in global politics. Given the rumblings of discontent throughout the EU over German leadership, other members may be relieved to see Paris back. Initially, much of Macron’s focus will have to be on strengthening France economically, but if he succeeds in putting the EU on firmer footing, both Moscow and Washington will have to take note.

If Le Pen were to pull off an upset and win the election (while most polls, and even gamblers, put Macron firmly ahead, at least one data cruncher suggests the two are in a “virtual dead heat”), France would be thrown into crisis and Europe would likely become a non-player on the global stage: Even without the ability to make good on her promises to take France out of the EU, Le Pen could do a good deal on her own to cause a major slow-down in European decision-making, leaving the bloc incapacitated. Despite the potential for an EU breakdown, both Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump would find it difficult to strike bilateral deals with European powers, as each would prefer to do, in cases where they would conflict with EU obligations. Moreover, in the May 3 debate Le Pen said France should keep its distance from both Russia and the U.S. In this, she and Macron don’t entirely disagree.

Macron talks about France not sharing the same “values” as Putin’s Russia, but he has also been critical of Trump. He may share 19th-century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville’s view of France and Europe being squeezed between the U.S. and Russia: “There are two great peoples on earth who, starting from different points, seem to advance toward the same goal; these are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.” While Macron has spoken in support of NATO and sees the U.S. as an ally, he also strives for better ties with China and, above all, for a revitalized Europe that does not necessarily follow Washington’s line. Paradoxically, this sounds a bit like the global multipolarity Moscow has been seeking for years. So long as Putin and Trump can recognize and respect that, I think they won’t find in Macron an anti-Russian or anti-American ideologue but a man they could do business with.


Mathew Burrows

Mathew Burrows is director of the Strategy, Foresight and Risks Initiative at the Atlantic Council. In August 2013 he retired from a 28-year career in the CIA and State Department, having spent the last decade of that at the National Intelligence Council. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds."

Photo courtesy of LEWEB under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.