.
A

s President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen enter the final stretch of campaigning for the April 24 second round of France’s 2022 presidential election, the two candidates’ stances on French-Russian relations have dominated the election’s foreign policy dimension. While the election has remained largely focused on quality of life and economic issues, President Macron’s leadership during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided him with a respectable bump in support. Le Pen’s previous affinity toward Russia as well as her disinterest in Western security architecture remains a consistent drag on her campaign with many French voters. 

While President Macron waited until March to declare his candidacy so he could focus on Russia’s invasion, his adversaries seized the initiative. In doing so, they were able to frame the main issues of this year’s campaign: purchasing power, cost of living, security, and immigration. Holding only one rally before the first round and running with a program that is merely what he left unachieved in his previous term, Macron had to meet the themes of his opponents. In his victory speech after reaching a higher-than-expected vote share of 27.84% in the first round, the sitting president never mentioned the word “Ukraine,” focusing instead on domestic concerns. Macron has refused to stop France’s import of Russian gas out of a fear of fuel price increases in a country which had been recently churned by protests initially sparked by fuel tax hikes. This could change in the lead-up to the runoff since Macron’s adversary, Marine Le Pen, has more than dubious positions on Putin and Ukraine. 

Le Pen’s Problematic Russia Ties

Marine Le Pen is arguably the French presidential candidate with the strongest ties to Russia, and advocates a strategic alliance with Russia in areas of mutual interest in her 2022 program. Although she condemned the Bucha massacre and called it a war crime, Le Pen continues to advocate such an alliance. When detailing her foreign policy program, she again articulated the idea of a rapprochement between NATO and Russia

Pro-Russian foreign policy was popular in the first round, with a combined 52.17% of French voters supporting a candidate with a friendly or conciliatory approach to Moscow. The far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, who narrowly missed proceeding to the second round by 400,000 votes, has long advocated for pro-Kremlin foreign policy. He has also condemned the EU’s decision to supply arms to Ukraine. Given March opinion polling ahead of the election which showed that Ukraine only impacted the vote of 36% of voters, it is clear why just one candidate supported a total ban on the import of Russian gas.

Le Pen’s party “National Gathering” also has direct financial links to Russia. In 2014, it received a €9.6 million loan from the First Czech-Russian Bank (FCBR), which was then sold to Aviazaptchast, an entity owned by former Russian military officials. Furthermore, in 2022, Le Pen contracted another €10.6 million loan from Magyar Külkereskedelmi Bank, a Hungarian bank with close ties to Viktor Orban. Many attribute her affinities with the Kremlin to the financial support she receives from Russia or from Putin sympathizers in Europe. Emmanuel Macron will attempt to play this card against her before their second-round rematch.

In addition to her murky financial ties to Russia and Russia-linked entities, Ms. Le Pen has attracted special attention from Moscow in the past. In her last presidential run in 2017, Le Pen made a visit to Moscow which was ostensibly organized via “parliamentary channels” on the Russian State Duma’s invitation. Her meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on that trip provides valuable clues about Kremlin views of Le Pen as a candidate. Tucked within introductory remarks of Le Pen and Putin’s conversation was Putin’s assertion that Russia has a right to “communicate” with domestic political forces in Europe, including Le Pen. Despite Putin’s dubious claim with the next breath that Russia did not seek to influence France’s democratic processes, Le Pen represents a helpful conduit to promote a French or European “rapprochement” with Russia from Moscow’s point of view. 

Russia’s interest in Le Pen’s future as a potentially receptive foreign leader is visible in Russian coverage of her campaign and statements. Le Pen’s promise to withdraw France from NATO’s integrated command structure has received ample coverage from a variety of Russian state media sources. So has her April 13 reaffirmation of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula as legitimate. Meanwhile, the Kremlin appears to have demurred on Macron’s announcement of plans to speak with President Putin on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indicating a potential refusal to give Macron any more exposure than necessary in the run-up to the second round. 

Macron’s Russia Balancing Act

While certainly less accommodating than Le Pen, President Macron himself bought into the long-time narrative of French diplomacy that assigns blame for aggressive Russian behavior to supposed Western misconduct. Despite rejoining NATO’s integrated military command in 2009 (after President De Gaulle pulled the country out of those same command structures in 1966), De Gaulle’s vision of France as a balancing power between the West and Russia persists in the minds of French political class. That same framework has often led Paris to buy into Moscow’s narrative regarding NATO enlargement

Macron carries on this legacy of relationship-building with Russia both on a national and multinational level. The French President has met with Putin several times throughout his presidency and is the sole NATO leader still talking to the Russian president. As recently as last January, in his address to the European Parliament, he called on the organization to pursue a strategic dialogue with the Kremlin and tried to play the role of the peacemaker in the leadup to Russia’s invasion. Macron perceives Russia as an important neighbor on Europe’s doorstep and as such argues that Europeans should engage with Putin directly.

Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron’s proactive leadership at the start of the war in Ukraine allowed him to benefit from a “rally around the flag” phenomenon evidenced by opinion polling from the opening days of the war. Those polls found that 58% of French people believed Macron had handled the crisis well. Macron’s strategy of working with Paris’ NATO and European partners to provide material aid to Ukraine while playing a mediatory role (however successfully or unsuccessfully) appears to enjoy buy-in from the French people. 

Future French-Russian Relations

Polling which suggests that Emmanuel Macron is entering the April 24 second round with a healthy lead over Marine Le Pen seems like an endorsement of Macron’s more mediatory approach to France’s relationship with Moscow. If that translates into a win for Macron, what would it mean for the future of the Moscow-Paris relationship? It is unlikely that President Macron would dramatically alter his approach to Russia in substance or spirit – his refusal to take the symbolic step of labeling the actions of Russian troops around Bucha as genocide indicates that he has wholly embraced the concept of France as a mediator between Russia and Europe. A renewed mandate for Macron would be a continuation of French policy thus far in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: provision support to Kyiv while preserving channels for dialogue with Moscow in keeping with the Elysée’s longstanding approach.

While Macron’s victory is likely, it is not entirely assured. If Marine Le Pen and her National Gathering party triumph on April 24, in June’s legislative elections, or in 2027’s presidential elections (if longstanding trends supporting the growth of the right in France continue), forces in French politics supportive of full reconciliation with Russia would be more powerful than ever before. Even with a second term secured, President Macron will find it hard to ignore growing domestic disinterest in France’s cooperation with allies to support Ukraine. 

About
Wesley Culp
:
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress focused on Russia and Eurasia.
About
Charles Halb
:
Charles Halb is a French student currently pursuing a MA in international relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS. His fields of interest are European Security and the Transatlantic relationship.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Casts Long Shadow Over French Election

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger via Unsplash.

April 22, 2022

France for decades has had closer ties to Russia than the U.S. or most of the EU. But if French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen unseats incumbent Emmanuel Macron, it could mean a full French reconciliation with Russia, write Wesley Culp and Charles Halb.

A

s President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen enter the final stretch of campaigning for the April 24 second round of France’s 2022 presidential election, the two candidates’ stances on French-Russian relations have dominated the election’s foreign policy dimension. While the election has remained largely focused on quality of life and economic issues, President Macron’s leadership during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided him with a respectable bump in support. Le Pen’s previous affinity toward Russia as well as her disinterest in Western security architecture remains a consistent drag on her campaign with many French voters. 

While President Macron waited until March to declare his candidacy so he could focus on Russia’s invasion, his adversaries seized the initiative. In doing so, they were able to frame the main issues of this year’s campaign: purchasing power, cost of living, security, and immigration. Holding only one rally before the first round and running with a program that is merely what he left unachieved in his previous term, Macron had to meet the themes of his opponents. In his victory speech after reaching a higher-than-expected vote share of 27.84% in the first round, the sitting president never mentioned the word “Ukraine,” focusing instead on domestic concerns. Macron has refused to stop France’s import of Russian gas out of a fear of fuel price increases in a country which had been recently churned by protests initially sparked by fuel tax hikes. This could change in the lead-up to the runoff since Macron’s adversary, Marine Le Pen, has more than dubious positions on Putin and Ukraine. 

Le Pen’s Problematic Russia Ties

Marine Le Pen is arguably the French presidential candidate with the strongest ties to Russia, and advocates a strategic alliance with Russia in areas of mutual interest in her 2022 program. Although she condemned the Bucha massacre and called it a war crime, Le Pen continues to advocate such an alliance. When detailing her foreign policy program, she again articulated the idea of a rapprochement between NATO and Russia

Pro-Russian foreign policy was popular in the first round, with a combined 52.17% of French voters supporting a candidate with a friendly or conciliatory approach to Moscow. The far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, who narrowly missed proceeding to the second round by 400,000 votes, has long advocated for pro-Kremlin foreign policy. He has also condemned the EU’s decision to supply arms to Ukraine. Given March opinion polling ahead of the election which showed that Ukraine only impacted the vote of 36% of voters, it is clear why just one candidate supported a total ban on the import of Russian gas.

Le Pen’s party “National Gathering” also has direct financial links to Russia. In 2014, it received a €9.6 million loan from the First Czech-Russian Bank (FCBR), which was then sold to Aviazaptchast, an entity owned by former Russian military officials. Furthermore, in 2022, Le Pen contracted another €10.6 million loan from Magyar Külkereskedelmi Bank, a Hungarian bank with close ties to Viktor Orban. Many attribute her affinities with the Kremlin to the financial support she receives from Russia or from Putin sympathizers in Europe. Emmanuel Macron will attempt to play this card against her before their second-round rematch.

In addition to her murky financial ties to Russia and Russia-linked entities, Ms. Le Pen has attracted special attention from Moscow in the past. In her last presidential run in 2017, Le Pen made a visit to Moscow which was ostensibly organized via “parliamentary channels” on the Russian State Duma’s invitation. Her meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on that trip provides valuable clues about Kremlin views of Le Pen as a candidate. Tucked within introductory remarks of Le Pen and Putin’s conversation was Putin’s assertion that Russia has a right to “communicate” with domestic political forces in Europe, including Le Pen. Despite Putin’s dubious claim with the next breath that Russia did not seek to influence France’s democratic processes, Le Pen represents a helpful conduit to promote a French or European “rapprochement” with Russia from Moscow’s point of view. 

Russia’s interest in Le Pen’s future as a potentially receptive foreign leader is visible in Russian coverage of her campaign and statements. Le Pen’s promise to withdraw France from NATO’s integrated command structure has received ample coverage from a variety of Russian state media sources. So has her April 13 reaffirmation of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula as legitimate. Meanwhile, the Kremlin appears to have demurred on Macron’s announcement of plans to speak with President Putin on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indicating a potential refusal to give Macron any more exposure than necessary in the run-up to the second round. 

Macron’s Russia Balancing Act

While certainly less accommodating than Le Pen, President Macron himself bought into the long-time narrative of French diplomacy that assigns blame for aggressive Russian behavior to supposed Western misconduct. Despite rejoining NATO’s integrated military command in 2009 (after President De Gaulle pulled the country out of those same command structures in 1966), De Gaulle’s vision of France as a balancing power between the West and Russia persists in the minds of French political class. That same framework has often led Paris to buy into Moscow’s narrative regarding NATO enlargement

Macron carries on this legacy of relationship-building with Russia both on a national and multinational level. The French President has met with Putin several times throughout his presidency and is the sole NATO leader still talking to the Russian president. As recently as last January, in his address to the European Parliament, he called on the organization to pursue a strategic dialogue with the Kremlin and tried to play the role of the peacemaker in the leadup to Russia’s invasion. Macron perceives Russia as an important neighbor on Europe’s doorstep and as such argues that Europeans should engage with Putin directly.

Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron’s proactive leadership at the start of the war in Ukraine allowed him to benefit from a “rally around the flag” phenomenon evidenced by opinion polling from the opening days of the war. Those polls found that 58% of French people believed Macron had handled the crisis well. Macron’s strategy of working with Paris’ NATO and European partners to provide material aid to Ukraine while playing a mediatory role (however successfully or unsuccessfully) appears to enjoy buy-in from the French people. 

Future French-Russian Relations

Polling which suggests that Emmanuel Macron is entering the April 24 second round with a healthy lead over Marine Le Pen seems like an endorsement of Macron’s more mediatory approach to France’s relationship with Moscow. If that translates into a win for Macron, what would it mean for the future of the Moscow-Paris relationship? It is unlikely that President Macron would dramatically alter his approach to Russia in substance or spirit – his refusal to take the symbolic step of labeling the actions of Russian troops around Bucha as genocide indicates that he has wholly embraced the concept of France as a mediator between Russia and Europe. A renewed mandate for Macron would be a continuation of French policy thus far in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: provision support to Kyiv while preserving channels for dialogue with Moscow in keeping with the Elysée’s longstanding approach.

While Macron’s victory is likely, it is not entirely assured. If Marine Le Pen and her National Gathering party triumph on April 24, in June’s legislative elections, or in 2027’s presidential elections (if longstanding trends supporting the growth of the right in France continue), forces in French politics supportive of full reconciliation with Russia would be more powerful than ever before. Even with a second term secured, President Macron will find it hard to ignore growing domestic disinterest in France’s cooperation with allies to support Ukraine. 

About
Wesley Culp
:
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress focused on Russia and Eurasia.
About
Charles Halb
:
Charles Halb is a French student currently pursuing a MA in international relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS. His fields of interest are European Security and the Transatlantic relationship.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.