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Sovereignists or Putinists? How the Ukrainian Crisis is Affecting the French Presidential Candidates by Hélène de Lauzun

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Sovereignists or Putinists? How the Ukrainian Crisis is Affecting the French Presidential Candidates

President Emmanuel Macron has just entered the presidential campaign; meanwhile, the Russian-Ukrainian war has burst into the French presidential election and appears as a litmus test for evaluating the respective positions of the candidates who oppose the outgoing president. 

A situation of international tension always acts to reinforce the popularity of the president in place. Voters tend to renew their confidence in their president, unwilling to risk destabilising the country by changing leaders in the middle of a battle. As a result, President Macron’s polling currently runs at an all-time high, approaching 30%. 

Part of this swing is due to the work of the media. Many commentators and politicians have taken the opportunity to discredit once and for all the positions of the more sovereignist candidates by making them out to be blind supporters of Vladimir Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Marine Le Pen has been accused of having benefited from a loan from Russian investors for her campaign in 2017. At the time, the candidate was able to pose for a photo with the Russian president—photos that she now wishes to forget, since she has condemned in the strongest terms the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Statements by Jean-Luc Mélenchon showing a strong anti-Americanism have been unearthed, which would testify to his complacency towards Russia. In an interview with Le Monde on January 18th, he exclaimed: “The Russians are mobilising on their borders? Who wouldn’t do the same thing with a neighbour [Ukraine] like that, a country linked to a power [U.S.] that continually threatens them?” Today, Mélenchon gets annoyed when he is described as “pro-Putin.” As for Éric Zemmour, his numerous recent media interventions praising Putin’s Russia are still easy to find on the web. In December, he was still convinced that Russia would not attack Ukraine, and now he has to multiply his media interventions to admit that he was wrong

Les Républicains party is particularly determined to denounce Éric Zemmour’s “Putinophilia,” which they believe should definitively discredit the candidate, and even call into question the validity of the sponsorships he has received, including those from the Les Républicains camp. Head of communications for Valérie Pécresse’s campaign Geoffroy Didier particularly reproached Éric Zemmour for having declared that “Putin was the aggressed, not the aggressor.” By adopting the Kremlin’s rhetoric, and by endorsing Vladimir Putin’s main demand—the end of NATO enlargement—he has placed himself in a position that is difficult to support in French public opinion, which does not understand his symbolic refusal to welcome Ukrainian refugees on French soil. His positions are sometimes perceived as opaque, as when he tried to define Putin as an “authoritarian democrat.” On Tuesday, March 1st, Reconquête MEPs such as Gilbert Collard, Jérôme Rivière, and Nicolas Bay did not vote in favour of the resolution to condemn the Russian aggression proposed in the European Parliament.

Once again we can see a convergence between Emmanuel Macron and Valérie Pécresse, against three candidates who embody another voice. Damien Abad, the leader of the Republicans in the National Assembly, subjected them to pro-war, pro-Putin vitriol: “I accuse Mr. Zemmour, Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Mélenchon of having maintained an unhealthy fascination for Putin’s model,” he said on March 1st, at the podium in front of the MPs. 

But the problem is deep, and it is not just a question of Emmanuel Macron’s or Valérie Pécresse’s supporters making an easy or purely formal attack on their opponents. The confrontation over the Russian question is in fact a testimony to two irreconcilable visions of France’s international position. Today in France, taking a sovereignist line is unfortunately understood as Putinolatry, and it is extremely difficult to hear a balanced point of view on what the positioning of a strong France in the international game should be, in the tradition of Gaullism. 

Adrien Quattenens, the coordinator of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise, defends his candidate’s position as follows: “Our position is that of a non-aligned France. The Russians are not our adversaries. We want to leave NATO.” This line is also towed by Marine Le Pen and her right-wing political family: constancy, independence, and equidistance. 

Supporting the need for a realistic consideration of the importance of Russia in the international game does not mean in any way signing a blank check for Putin’s policy. Affirming one’s interest in Russian culture and its contribution to western civilisation cannot be equated with accepting the aggression against Ukraine. Macron could also be included in the list of “Putinophiles,” as he has worked to warm up relations with Putin on several occasions during his term in office. Just a few weeks ago he was defending the need for a dialogue with Russia in front of European parliamentarians. 

The position of these candidates can only really be understood in light of the other measures they propose. For Marine Le Pen, increasing France’s energy independence requires, for example, the upgrading of the nuclear sector and an increase in the defence budget, which Éric Zemmour also advocates. Zemmour and Le Pen both demand an exit from the integrated NATO command as a condition for France to make an alternative voice heard—which does not mean isolationism.

For the moment, there is no time for political finesse. It is, unfortunately, President Emmanuel Macron, whose attempts to mediate internationally have failed and whose members of the government are multiplying blunders, who is doing well, and can, increasingly serenely, envisage his re-election.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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