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PARIS — Marine Le Pen has more than a Russian skeleton in her closet — from her past admiration for President Vladimir Putin to party loans from a Russian bank — so with headlines dominated by growing tales of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, the next French presidential election should be a master key for Emmanuel Macron.
And yet this is not the case. The leader of the far-right National Rally party makes the race uncomfortably close for the liberal president before a first round of voting on Sunday.
Indeed, the French president fought to defend his own record on Russia. On Wednesday, Macron responded forcefully to criticism from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that he was talking to Putin, and therefore “negotiating with criminals”.
“These remarks are both unfounded and scandalous, but they do not surprise me,” Macron told French television channel TF1. “They interfere in the presidential campaign. The Polish Prime Minister belongs to a far-right party and he supports Marine Le Pen.
Morawiecki was referring to Macron’s regular calls with Putin as part of an ongoing, albeit unsuccessful, diplomatic effort to stop the war. On Wednesday, Macron again defended his decision to keep the line to Moscow open and tried to redirect criticism towards Le Pen.
“I totally, totally stand by my choice to speak to Russia, to avoid war… And I have never been complicit [of Putin]unlike others,” he said, alluding strongly to Le Pen’s past dealings with Moscow.
Similarly during a visit to Brittany on Tuesday, Macron tried to shine the spotlight on his rival’s past dealings with Russia, telling reporters that he was not the one who was “indulgent” towards Putin nor “who was financed by Russia”.
Water off a duck’s back
Le Pen and Russia go back a long way. His National Rally party is still repaying a 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank in 2014 and has often sided with Moscow – whether on the annexation of Crimea or the fate of the leader of the Russian opposition Alexei Navalny. Last month, Le Pen’s campaign team should have thrown away more than a million campaign leaflets because they featured a photo of her shaking hands with Putin in 2017.
And yet, it hasn’t hurt Le Pen’s presidential candidacy too much, and it has stubbornly risen in the polls since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to POLITICO’s poll of polls, Le Pen is expected to win 22% of the vote in the first round, after closing the gap to favorite Macron with 27%. Crucially, polls for the scheduled April 24 run-off show Le Pen significantly closing the gap to the incumbent.
This is partly linked to Le Pen’s skilful approach to the war in Ukraine. The far-right leader quickly turned on Putin at the start of the war, admitting on television that the conflict had “changed her opinion” of the Russian president, and she has consistently condemned the invasion ever since.
At times, she has even sought to outdo Macron in his response to the crisis, calling on Wednesday for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador, as France moved to expel dozens of Russian diplomats following reports of atrocities against civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha. .
His far-right rival Eric Zemmour has also faced much of the criticism amid closer media scrutiny. Also an admirer of Putin, Zemmour stumbled at the start of the war, demanding that Ukrainian refugees be welcomed in Poland rather than France.
“The media trial of Putin’s former cronies hurt us more than it hurt Le Pen,” a Zemmour ally recently admitted, adding; “Our voters follow politics closely, while many Le Pen voters have turned off mainstream politics, they don’t follow [international news].”
Instead, Le Pen focused his campaign on the rising cost of living for ordinary French people, pushed up by inflation and the impact of sanctions against Russia on the European economy. The theme has come to dominate public debate as the elections approach.
On Tuesday, Le Pen sought to project herself as the protector of French families against EU sanctions against Russia.
“The solution for reducing gas and gasoline imports [from Russia], it will be a tragedy for French families,” she told French radio RTL. “I’m sorry to tell you, my priority is to defend the purchasing power of French families,” she said.
Macron instead appeared to be playing catch-up in the campaign, arguing that his economic measures also protected French purchasing power, and battling revelations that his government had spent millions of euros on expensive consultancy fees. His government is also actively promoting more energy sanctions against Russia.
If, as the polls indicate, Macron and Le Pen face off in the second round, then Le Pen may have to convince voters beyond his political base that his relations with Russia are not an obstacle to the management of France.
Macron has so far refrained from naming Le Pen directly because of his ties to Russia. In the second round, the gloves are more likely to come off.