What the French Elections Could Mean for Russia-Ukraine War

OOn April 10, 12 candidates for the presidency were eliminated by French voters to replace incumbent leader Emmanuel Macron. Marine Le Pen, a far-right politician, was also left out of the race. On April 24, voters will go to the polls to determine who will be the leader of France and a major powerbroker in the E.U. It faces one of the most difficult challenges of recent times: How to deal with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

Many see Le Pe as an ally for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Macron however, has sought to deescalate conflict by regular calls with Macron. 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.

Marine Le Pen: Who are you? What is your opinion 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. At the French elections’ second stage, she faced Macron head-to-head in 2017. While Macron was victorious, Le Pen managed to bring the National Rally and its extreme policy ideas into the mainstream discussion.

Le Pen stated that she desires closer relations with Russia. Le Pen met Putin in the Kremlin before the 2017 French election. 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.”

Learn more Marine Le Pen: The Star of France’s Right-Wing

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 was an energy consultant who became a Member of the European Parliament and brokered the loan. He said that they were not 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.”

To win support from swing voters, Le Pen will have to tone down her support of Putin after her defeat in 2017. 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.”

Tara Varma (head of European Council on Foreign Relations Paris), a think-tank that focuses on European security and foreign policies, said Le Pen’s shift in her position on Russia earned it more support. 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 does Emmanuel Macron do about the conflict in Ukraine?

Macron has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and introduced a raft of sanctions, including on oligarchs with assets in France. Macron demanded a fresh round of harsher sanctions after details of Russian war crimes were revealed, such as the murder of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine.

Le Pen said she was in agreement with Russian sanctions. However, she disagrees with those that target oil and natural 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. An avid Europhile, Macron has maintained close relationships with many leaders of the political spectrum during his presidency and had previously developed a diplomatic relation 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.”

Macron maintained a constant line of communication with Putin since that time. 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.

Politico reported that Macron had spoken to Putin at least eleven times over the telephone in the days leading up and following the attack on Ukraine. 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.”

Learn More Emmanuel Macron is on track to win re-election. The Next Steps Could be More Tough

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. Macron was defeated by Jean-Luc Melenchon in round one, despite the cost of living crisis. He came third behind Le Pen.

Yet, Macron is still on track to beat Le Pen, according to polls—but by a very slim margin. Varma says that Macron has the ability to leverage his experience in foreign policy to his advantage on Ukraine. “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.”

How could Le Pen’s victory affect NATO and 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 is known for being euroskeptic during last elections has now abandoned her promise to pull France out of the eurozone. She also softened her rhetoric about 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.

Learn more French Presidential Hopeful Marine Le Pen Says She Wouldn’t Block Vote on France Leaving European Union

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 receives funding from the E.U. funding, and he hasn’t gone so far as to withdraw from the bloc. The E.U. is afraid that rebellious nations may follow his lead. In response, the E.U. has started withholding funds from Hungary.

Like Orbán, Le Pen now recognizes the potential to challenge the E.U. Le Pen could seek to establish a formal alliance with Russia, Hungary and other countries with authoritarian tendencies if elected. 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. They were somewhat reluctant to put the sanctions into effect. [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.”

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

Reach out to usSend your letters to


Related Articles

Back to top button