Putin’s War Is Shaking Up the French Election

As Macron negotiates with Putin, some of his rivals dance around their past enthusiasm for the Russian leader.

By , an independent journalist based in New York.
French President Emmanuel Macron leaves a polling booth.
French President Emmanuel Macron leaves a polling booth.
French President Emmanuel Macron leaves a polling booth at the polling station for the first round of the French regional elections in Le Touquet, France, on June 20, 2021. CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/POOL/AFP

Putin’s War

French President Emmanuel Macron continues to keep his hotline open with Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking to him more than a dozen times since the crisis escalated in December 2021, with the latest call Thursday from a European Union summit at Versailles, France. But that hasn’t stopped Macron from publicly rebuking the Kremlin for its brutal war in Ukraine, putting the French president in sharp contrast to many of his political challengers in next month’s presidential election.

For years now, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have spoken favorably about Putin or taken lucrative positions with Russian companies. Since the war began, however, many have either been silent about their past support of Russia or publicly renounced it. In France, Putin’s war is shifting attitudes in the glare of a presidential election.

Before the war, populist and extreme right-wing parties like National Rally were quite bullish on Russia; in a Pew Research Center poll about a year before the buildup on Ukraine’s borders, 55 percent of National Rally supporters viewed Russia favorably, whereas only 30 percent of other voters did. But views have shifted dramatically. In a French public opinion survey in early March, some 92 percent of respondents expressed concern over the situation. Three out of four French citizens said they supported Ukraine, with only 3 percent expressing support for Putin’s Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron continues to keep his hotline open with Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking to him more than a dozen times since the crisis escalated in December 2021, with the latest call Thursday from a European Union summit at Versailles, France. But that hasn’t stopped Macron from publicly rebuking the Kremlin for its brutal war in Ukraine, putting the French president in sharp contrast to many of his political challengers in next month’s presidential election.

For years now, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have spoken favorably about Putin or taken lucrative positions with Russian companies. Since the war began, however, many have either been silent about their past support of Russia or publicly renounced it. In France, Putin’s war is shifting attitudes in the glare of a presidential election.

Before the war, populist and extreme right-wing parties like National Rally were quite bullish on Russia; in a Pew Research Center poll about a year before the buildup on Ukraine’s borders, 55 percent of National Rally supporters viewed Russia favorably, whereas only 30 percent of other voters did. But views have shifted dramatically. In a French public opinion survey in early March, some 92 percent of respondents expressed concern over the situation. Three out of four French citizens said they supported Ukraine, with only 3 percent expressing support for Putin’s Russia.

“There used to be an inclination towards Russia, mostly due to skepticism of the U.S. and NATO, and a long tradition of a French balancing act in foreign policy,” said Célia Belin of the Brookings Institution. Now, she said, “the French widely support Macron in this crisis and are not at all Russia sympathizers anymore.” 

That shift has benefitted Macron, who began climbing in the polls after Russia invaded its neighbor on Feb. 24, but there is fierce competition for second place to secure a spot in the runoff vote later in April. The war has forced some candidates with a history of Putinphilia into a quandary about whether and how far to backpedal—but it’s not clear they are moving as fast as French public opinion.

The front-runner for a runoff is Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Rally party. Le Pen, who described Macron as the “little telegrapher of NATO and the European Union” after his Feb. 7 meeting with Putin at the Kremlin, lost to Macron in the second round of the 2017 vote but looks set for a rematch. 

Le Pen, who declared her admiration for Putin as far back as 2011, met with him a few weeks before the last election. A photo of her shaking the Russian leader’s hand at the Kremlin features prominently in her new campaign leaflet, which was printed before the invasion. Le Pen’s party also took a $11.7 million loan from a Russian bank in 2014 to finance its election campaigns; this cycle, the party has again turned to Putin’s cheerleaders in Europe for help, notably taking a $11.8 million loan from a Hungarian bank. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been forced to backtrack on his enthusiasm for Putin’s Russia and accept Ukrainian refugees pouring over his borders, as the national elections in his own country also loom next month.

In an interview with the BBC that aired in early February, Le Pen blamed the United States for the 150,000-plus Russian troops amassed along the Ukrainian borders because, in her words, the United States was trying to push Ukraine into joining NATO. (The opposite was true. Ukraine has long aspired to join NATO, but the alliance didn’t accept it.) Biden is “in a very weak position politically,” Le Pen said. “So, he’s doing what the leaders of the United States normally do when they feel politically fragile. Find an enemy, and if you don’t have one, you can try and create one.”

A day after last month’s invasion, Le Pen told French television viewers that she thought Putin was “rational and brutal,” but she still found him “impressive.” But Belin noted that Le Pen has since denounced Putin’s invasion and refrained from directly criticizing Ukraine, treading water politically in recent weeks. 

Some of her far-right (and far-left) traveling companions have just doubled down.

Éric Zemmour, a conservative commentator who once proclaimed that he wanted to be the “French Putin,” was briefly leading in at least one poll last month for a coveted spot in the second round. As candidates in the 2017 French presidential election, both Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a member of the French National Assembly with the leftist La France Insoumise party, and Le Pen made statements legitimizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Zemmour, who is running in his first campaign, described the sanctions put on Russia after it seized the Ukrainian peninsula as “grossly unfair and completely counterproductive.”

Zemmour, like the Kremlin, claimed there were Nazi elements in the Ukrainian government in a televised debate last year with French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy; but he stopped short of accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of being a Nazi himself. (Both debaters and the Ukrainian president are Jewish.) Putin and his minions have since claimed the Russian invasion of Ukraine was intended to “de-Nazify” its democratic neighbor. Mélenchon, meanwhile, has accused Zelensky of being the puppet of a shadowy global conspiracy of oligarchs. In an interview in June, he gave a rambling description of his theory of oligarchs who invented crises to propel outsider candidates to democratic victories, concluding a list of what he called “little Macrons” with “a guy in Ukraine who played in a television series.”

Since the invasion, Le Pen, Mélenchon, and Zemmour have all admitted that Russia is the aggressor. But all three have objected to providing Ukraine with defensive weapons. Mélenchon was roundly booed in the National Assembly for opposing the dispatch of armaments to Ukraine and cutting off Russian banks from SWIFT. In his speech to the assembly on March 1, he also expressed sympathy for Russia, saying the global community hadn’t done enough for the former empire after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Then there’s Valérie Pécresse, who has been struggling to gain traction running on the ticket of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican party. She has criticized all three of her nationalist opponents for their history of pro-Russian statements. But she’s got baggage of her own: As a teenager, she learned Russian and spent time in youth camps in the then-Soviet Union, later recalling how the hardships she saw turned her into a lifelong anti-communist. 

This January, the self-professed Russophile penned an op-ed in Le Monde, calling for a European security conference bringing together the EU and Russia and saying the “eternal Russia” she loved should “no longer dream of dividing up the world in a one-on-one with the United States.” Then amid last week’s political fallout, a senior figure in her party—Sarkozy’s former prime minister, François Fillon—resigned as director of the Russian state-controlled oil company Zarubezhneft and the Russian petrochemical company Sibur. In Belin’s judgment though, Pécresse doesn’t represent the pro-Russia right but is instead a classic Gaullist.

To be sure, one connecting thread among the three extremist candidates is their disdain for NATO, despite the alliance’s distinct popularity in member states, including France, even before Russia started a new war.

Le Pen has long said she wishes to withdraw France from the military alliance’s central command structure as then-French President Charles de Gaulle did in 1966. She has called Sarkozy’s decision to rejoin the central command in 2009 a mistake. But today’s far-right and far-left politicians confuse de Gaulle’s actual stance. France never actually withdrew from NATO. It remained a full-fledged member and had an agreement on how it would work with NATO outside of the command’s structure. And de Gaulle never seriously seemed to doubt which side France was on during those years.

Belin said the fascination many nationalist candidates have shown for Putin is only partly about the Russian leader, strongmen, and a longing for the Soviet Union. But she said it’s also an opportunity for France to bash the United States and NATO, adding there was “very little understanding on the far-right and the far-left of what would actually be implied by leaving the command structure.”

Indeed, opposition to NATO was the sole issue on which Zemmour and Mélenchon found common ground during a wide-ranging two-hour debate in October 2021. Mélenchon said NATO made no sense after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Zemmour said the alliance had become “a machine to serve the countries that are supposedly the allies of the United States and which, in fact, are only obliged to them and must submit to them.” 

By contrast, at the 2019 NATO summit in London, Macron described NATO as brain dead. But he was expressing a desire to strengthen the alliance, not abandon it. French voters, so far, seem inclined to stand with the real flags of the EU, NATO, and Ukraine rather than with the false flags of Putin.

J. Alex Tarquinio is an independent journalist based in New York and the past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.  Twitter: @alextarquinio

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.