Emmanuel Macron’s failed attempt to prevent an escalation of tensions in Ukraine gave his rivals a golden opportunity to criticize the French president ahead of the April elections, but none of them can really claim he would have done better.
The four main candidates vying against Macron for the presidency have either openly supported Russian President Vladimir Putin during their campaign or avoided explicitly criticizing Russia.
A day after Putin ordered his military forces to enter occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, some senior French politicians were still cautious in their criticism of the Kremlin, despite the fact that his aggressive move could potentially spark conflict. the bloodiest on the European continent since World War II.
On Tuesday, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has long-standing ties to the Kremlin, called Russian troop movements in Ukraine a Act “really regrettable” but said she “still believed in diplomacy”.
While the far right has long been close to Russia, the ambivalence towards Putin is particularly striking in the French majority conservative camp, with many hesitations between calls for firmness towards Russia and respect for the vision defended by Charles de Gaulle, who withdrew his country from the NATO army. integrated command and tried to make France an alternative power during the Cold War.
Valérie Pécresse, presidential candidate for the conservative Les Républicains party, condemned Putin’s actions on Tuesday but quickly put the blame on Macron’s “arrogant and solitary diplomacy”, saying his recent trip to Moscow was too little, too late.
Last month she organized a ‘European conference on security’ which would involve European leaders and Russia, calling in an editorial published by Le Monde on ‘our Russian friends’ to engage with European partners to resolve the crisis. Ukrainian.
Putin’s decision to intervene in Ukraine dealt a fatal blow to Macron’s diplomatic efforts to relaunch dialogue with Russia, including a high-profile visit to the Russian president.
Macron’s failed efforts to mediate Europe and ensure a de-escalation of the crisis have also been deemed opportunistic by some, as the French president is expected in the coming days to officially announce that he will seek re-election.
But while his actions have been widely criticized outside France, it is far from certain voters will punish Macron for going it alone against Russia.
The ambivalent at best attitude of the right-wing candidates towards Russia reflects a wider defiance within the country towards international partners when it comes to defending the country’s interests.
In a study conducted in January and published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank, only 47% of French respondents said they trusted NATO to protect the interests of EU citizens in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the lowest level among the seven countries surveyed.
“Complacency towards Russia transcends the French political class and it is evident on the right,” said Tara Varma, policy officer and head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Before, it was limited to the extreme right and the extreme left, but now it also affects the parties in power.”
“On the right, there is Gaullist nostalgia for Moscow,” said Pierre Sellal, France’s former ambassador to the EU. “On the left, they are inaudible on these issues… They have speaking points that sound like double talk.”
The Greens’ Yannick Jadot is the presidential candidate who has taken the toughest stance on Russia, calling it a dictatorship” and Putin a “bloody dictator”. Jadot currently votes at 5%.
Among Putin’s defenders are Eric Zemmour, the far-right TV pundit turned candidate who recently called the president “a Russian patriot” who has the right to “defend Russian interests”.
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the only left-wing candidate currently in double digits in POLITICO’s poll, called Russia “a partner.” His pro-Russian position is above all marked by hostility towards the United States.
Zemmour did not mention Putin by name in his statement following the events in Ukraine. Instead, he clarified that the current situation was “also” the result of “Western and NATO-led policies,” argued against sanctions and suggested declaring an end to the eastern expansion of NATO in a new treaty.
“For the far right and the far left, it’s obvious that they cross Putin’s talking points,” said Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP and Macron ally who chairs the European Parliament’s subcommittee on security. and defense. “Among Republicans, there has always been a tendency towards complacency towards Putin.”
Yet with Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, pro-Russian positions will become harder to maintain for many presidential candidates.
Pécresse, the Conservative candidate, said last Saturday that Europe’s message to Russia should be “firm as steel”.
But her tone contrasted with her previous editorial, in which she wrote about “the eternal Russia…that of Tolstoy and Pushkin, the country I know and love”, and which “is part of the European continent”.
Pécresse did not hesitate to declare his love of Russia and its authors in other interviews. She once said she learned Russian after reading Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” and addressed the “proud Russian people” in Russian during a recent TV appearance.
Another proof of the attitude of the Republicans towards Russia is the fact that François Fillon, former French Prime Minister and ally of Pécresse, recently joined the board of directors of the largest Russian petrochemical producer Sibur, which counts among its members l businessman Gennady Timchenko, a close ally of Putin. of its main stakeholders. In June, Fillon joined the board of another Russian company, Zarubezhneft, which explores for oil and gas.
Fillon’s closeness to Russian power has led some government officials, including Clément Beaune, the Minister for European Affairs, to ask Pecresse to “clarify his position” with regard to the former Prime Minister, who “disgraces himself by offering its services to Russian financial interests”.