Survey: What Would a Le Pen Presidency Mean for France’s Policy Toward Russia?
Deemed highly unlikely only a few months ago, a Marine Le Pen presidency had started to look like a distinct possibility in France even before the first round of the country’s presidential elections. The nationalist leader campaigned hard to capitalize on cost of living fears harbored by French voters, many of whom have also been unimpressed by incumbent Emmanuel Macron’s reluctance to divert his attention from the Ukraine crisis to the elections. Macron’s 11th hour effort helped him to reverse some of these losses. As a result, the incumbent won 27.85% of the votes cast in the first round of the French presidential elections on April 10, while Le Pen collected 23.15%, paving the way for their upcoming face-off in the second round on April 24. Some of the latest polls show Macron winning 55 percent of votes or more in that second round, but there is still a chance that Le Pen, a nationalist firebrand who has “put water in her vodka,” considerably toning down her anti-EU rhetoric, can still win on April 24.
Le Pen has been aiming for the Élysée Palace since she replaced her father as the leader of the National Front party in 2015. Since then, she has been known for cultivating warm ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and has also repeatedly proposed that France turn away from the U.S. Additionally, French investigative outlet Mediapart reported that Le Pen’s National Rally party received 11 million euros in financing from Russia between 2014 and 2015. More recently, her 2017 presidential campaign was partially funded through a loan from a Russian bank, according to media reports.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, however, Le Pen has sought to distance herself from Putin. A day after Russian forces launched a multi-pronged offensive she said: "I think that everybody has a form of admiration for Mr. Putin, but frankly, I consider that what he's done is highly reprehensible.” Le Pen—whose team has thrown out over a million leaflets featuring a smiling Le Pen shaking hands with Putin—now says she supports Ukraine in the war and does not support lifting EU sanctions against Moscow. However, she still promises to seek a “strategic rapprochement” between NATO and Russia once the war in Ukraine is over, and plans to pull France out of NATO’s military command. Additionally, she has said she would engage Moscow to keep Russia from an alliance with China. "Allowing Russia to create a superpower with China is the worst idea," according to Le Pen, who has “never been so close to winning France’s highest office,” according to an April 19 analysis in The Economist.
Given that her chances of beating Macron have risen, we thought it important to preview what a Le Pen presidency would entail for French, EU and NATO approaches toward Russia and the rest of post-Soviet Eurasia, as viewed by some of the West’s leading commentators on these subjects (in alphabetical order):
- Tony Barber, Europe editor for FT: “A victory for Le Pen ... would be a shattering blow to liberal democracy in the Western world and plunge the 27-nation EU into turmoil just when the U.S. and its allies are locked in a struggle over Ukraine with President Vladimir Putin’s nationalist, authoritarian Russia. ... [H]er campaign has developed increasing momentum as she has focused relentlessly on cost of living issues that have become more acute in French voters’ minds since the Ukraine war’s outbreak in February.” (FT, 04.11.22.)
- Luc de Barochez, head of world affairs for Le Point: “Marine Le Pen has put water in her vodka since her failed 2017 campaign. She no longer aims for Frexit or even exit from the euro. She has skillfully focused this year on the issue of the purchasing power of the French. But entire sections of her program remain incompatible with EU law. Her objective is to transform the EU into a ‘European alliance of nations,’ which would be European in name only. It claims to abolish the privileged nature of the Franco-German relationship, to slam the door on NATO's military command and to renounce all military-industrial cooperation with our neighbors, which would put an end to European defense. France would find itself marginalized within the European Union, with little more than Hungary as a potential ally. The EU, meanwhile, would be plunged into turbulence far more violent than that of Brexit.” (Le Point, 04.12.22)
- Catherine Chatignoux, a journalist with Les Echos: “Her political closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose model she praised not so long ago, and her reaffirmed willingness to negotiate with him on the security architecture of Europe, would plunge the EU-27 into an abyss of disarray at a time when they are trying to maintain their cohesion at all costs in the face of the Russian aggressor.” (Les Echos, 04.12.22)
- Angelos Chryssogelos, lecturer in politics and international relations at London Metropolitan University: "The main message should she win would be that European citizens really don't care all that much about the Russian threat. Her message about the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis, really comes through much more than any cosmopolitan, liberal consensus about Ukraine and the future of the West." (WSJ, 04.13.22)
- Jeremy Cliffe, writer at large for The New Statesman: “Something of a preview of a Le Pen-led France, and where it would stand on the war in Ukraine, has come in recent days from Hungary. There the authoritarian Viktor Orbán won his fourth consecutive term as prime minister on April 3. Like Le Pen he had played down his close links to Putin during the campaign. ... It can be assumed that a Le Pen emboldened and liberated by an election victory would pivot back toward the Kremlin too.” (Politico, 04.11.22)
- Jérôme Fenoglio, editorial director of Le Monde:
- “From the beginning of the Russian offensive on Ukraine, a camouflage had to be deployed on the international relations [of Le Pen and her family]. It was necessary to make people forget as quickly as possible, in addition to the loan granted by a Moscow bank, the admiration for the master of the Kremlin and the complacency toward a purifying ultranationalism always opposed to the democratic impulse of emancipating people. In fact, the possible election of Marine Le Pen as head of state would place us in the camp of the worst in Europe, Putinism, and the worst in the United States, Trumpism.” (Le Monde, 04.08.22)
- “The election of Marine Le Pen to the presidency of the Republic would constitute an aggression against the rule of law, a regression in the consideration of the climate catastrophe, a revision of our foreign alliances at the worst possible moment, while the atrocious war imposed by Vladimir Putin on Ukraine completes the unveiling of the true nature of a regime with which the candidate has been so complacent.” (Le Monde, 04.12.22)
- Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian: “There can be little doubt what a Le Pen victory would mean. Until the recent volte-face, her party’s MEPs stood in the way of almost every EU measure that might discomfort Putin. And even though Frexit is no longer a declared Le Pen dream, her program of treaty revision would, in effect, dismantle French membership of the EU, weakening the body, perhaps fatally—which is exactly what Putin wants. ... [T]he success of Orbán and Le Pen shows Putinism has put down strong roots in the West, ones that might survive the current storm.” (Guardian, 04.08.22)
- Benjamin Haddad, a researcher in international relations:
- “Marine Le Pen's program, which proposes, for example, to unilaterally reduce France’s contribution to the European budget or to reverse the free movement of goods, would lead to European paralysis or even Frexit. It would make Europe, and therefore France, more dependent on Russia for energy, the United States for military purposes and China for trade and technology.” (Le Figaro, 04.12.22)
- “Breaking with European unity on sanctions and arms deliveries to Kyiv, as proposed by Le Pen, would considerably weaken the Western camp in its strategy, which has paid off so far, to make Putin back down in Ukraine and thus end the conflict.” (Le Figaro, 04.12.22)
- “An alliance with Vladimir Putin's Russia, as she proposes, would not only be a moral fault after the war crimes committed in Bucha, but a major strategic error. This reversal of alliance would isolate France from its main partners for an inexplicable gain.” (Le Figaro, 04.12.22)
- Jonathan Lemire, citing U.S. officials: “A possible victory by Le Pen, a Putin sympathizer, could destabilize the Western coalition against Moscow, upending France’s role as a leading European power and potentially giving other NATO leaders cold feet about staying in the alliance, according to three senior administration officials not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.” (Politico, 04.08.22)
- Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for FT: “She has used the Ukraine war to distance herself from Vladimir Putin, claiming that her view of the Russian leader has ‘changed.’... But Le Pen’s previous open admiration for Putin and Donald Trump is still telling. Like them, Le Pen claims to represent the people against the elite and the nation against the ‘globalists.’ ... A bitterly divided France would have implications for the whole of Europe. The direct consequences of a Le Pen presidency for the EU would also be grave—indeed life-threatening. ... Le Pen is not just an enemy of the EU. She has also called NATO a ‘warmongering organization’ and pledged to take France out of its command structure. And she opposes energy sanctions on Russia—ostensibly because they would increase the cost of living in France. Putin has had a disastrous few weeks. But the voters of France could yet offer him some hope.” (FT, 04.11.22)
- Manuel Valls, former prime minister of France: “On the international level, the risks of leaving the integrated command of NATO or of an alliance with Russia are illuminated by current events. Although she has removed leaving the EU from her program, her desire to assert the primacy of national law over European law in all matters would in fact provoke it. Her economic program, her tens of billions of euros of reckless spending to which very few credible savings are made, illustrate the persistence of her incompetence and would lead France to ruin and the French to decline.” (Le Journal du Dimanche, 04.02.22)
- WSJ Editorial Board: “The runoff stakes will be especially high for Europe’s policy toward Russia and the war on Ukraine. Mr. Macron has long fancied himself a Vladimir Putin whisperer, like Angela Merkel in Germany. He has nothing to show for it, but at least he hasn’t obstructed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s aid for Ukraine. Ms. Le Pen talks as if she thinks Mr. Putin should be a French ally, and she is deeply hostile to NATO. Her economics are a right-wing version of dirigiste government intervention hostile to free trade. But such politicians can prosper in times of economic insecurity and a war in Europe’s east.” (WSJ, 04.10.22)
- WP Editorial Board: “Ms. Le Pen, long an anti-immigrant firebrand, has tried to rebrand herself as a moderate over the past five years, but her denunciations of Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine cannot wash away the stain of her party’s origins as the extremist National Front —or her past apologias for Moscow. A National Rally campaign leaflet distributed this year depicted her shaking hands with the Russian president, and the party funded itself with a 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank in 2014. Ms. Le Pen’s long-standing hostility to NATO is well-known; she is promising to withdraw the French military from the alliance’s command structure. A Le Pen win, in short, would be a huge boost to Mr. Putin, symbolically and substantively.” (WP, 04.11.22)
Photo by duma.gov.ru shared under a Creative Commons license.