Russian war on Ukraine stumps France’s presidential candidates

Ongoing conflict exposes many shades of pro- and anti-Russian views of top presidential hopefuls.

Russian war on Ukraine stumps France’s presidential candidates

Even as France continues walking a tough line on Russia by imposing stiff sanctions while trying to negotiate a cease-fire, not all of its presidential hopefuls are united in denouncing the war, and some in the right-wing have even called for forging an alliance with Russia once the war is over.

From being cautious about blaming Russia for what the Ukrainian president calls "war crimes," to proposing pulling France out of NATO and being neutral on Moscow’s moves, to declaring that Russian President Vladimir Putin can never be an ally of France, the ongoing conflict has exposed many shades of pro- and anti-Russian views from the field of candidates.

While most of the candidates have condemned the war and attacks on civilians, their reactions to the current sanctions and declarations about France’s future strategy toward Russia are divided and inconsistent, with some presidential hopefuls even carrying the baggage of longstanding ties with Russia.

Far-right: Allies of Russia

The strongest challenger to President Emmanuel Macron, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, has been an unabashed admirer of Putin, proposing in her election manifesto to build a security alliance with Russia without fear of American sanctions.

The National Rally party leader financed her 2017 presidential campaign with a €9 million loan from the First Czech Russian Bank, and vowed at that time once she came to power to end Paris’ sanctions on Russia.

But her financial and political debt to Putin has put her in a tight spot vis-a-vis the Ukraine war, forcing her to backpedal earlier statements. “The Vladimir Putin of five years ago is not exactly the one of today,” Le Pen told BFMTV news on March 1, a week after the war’s outbreak.

Days later, she also renounced her suggestion for an alliance with Russia, calling the current circumstances inappropriate for establishing cooperation in what she characterized as “the fight against Islamic fundamentalism.”

Amid strong public outrage over the Ukraine war, she assured the French who questioned her close links with the Kremlin that she has no friendship or financial ties with Putin, but at the same time she has refused to hold his regime accountable for “war crimes.”

"It's up to the UN to establish responsibility,” she said in response to claims of war crimes by Russian forces in the city of Bucha, near the capital Kyiv.

She said she stood against "sanctions affecting energy" in order to protect French national interests. “I clearly choose to defend our businesses, our jobs. At the moment, we do not have the means to replace Russian gas,” she argued.

Le Pen’s far-right rival Erick Zemmour has stood out equally in his affinity towards Russia. “We have to be careful. We have to be sure that these massacres are the work of Russian troops," the former-journalist-turned politician told France 2 on April 4 about the images coming from Bucha, intentionally or not feeding into the Kremlin line that the apparent massacres were staged.

He also urged caution on sanctions imposed on Putin, warning that they could “turn against the French.”

Zemmour, who in 2018 said he dreamt about having a French version of Putin – a “real patriot” – and voiced confidence that Putin would never invade Ukraine, has now condemned the war. However, he has refused to hold Putin responsible for "war crimes" and indeed asserted the need for rapprochement with Russia – in line with Le Pen’s views.

Balancing act of left and center

Pro-Russia sentiments are not just confined to the right-wing. The other end of the political spectrum, too, has harsh criticisms of NATO and US capitalism coming from left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who currently polls third with about 12% of likely voters, after Macron and Le Pen.

The leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party wants Paris to withdraw from NATO, calling the alliance incompatible with France’s status as a nuclear and military power.

NATO, he claims, provoked and humiliated Russia by stationing military defensive systems and missiles in Poland. Russia’s massive military buildup on Ukraine’s border preceding the war, he

said, was in response to this threat. In the past, he supported Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea as well as its military intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime.

But Melenchon, who earlier proclaimed that the “Russian threat does not exist," was forced to amend his stance after the war began and cut political ties with the Russian Left Front.

On March 3, Melenchon announced on his personal website that he was leaving the Russian Left Front with comrades from Russian opposition figures Alexey Sakhnin and Sergei Oudaltsov. He said he could no longer remain a member due to the front’s “support for this criminal war.”

While condemning the war, Melenchon also maintained that France should be "non-aligned" and not blindly follow American policy on Russia.

Conservative leader Valerie Pecresse, currently fourth in the polls, has firmly rejected ties with Putin. "Putin can no longer be an ally for France," she said, vowing to reduce France's

dependence on Russian gas. She has also criticized President Macron's diplomatic negotiations for failing to see through the Kremlin's intentions.

Change or status quo

As voting for the first round draws to a close this coming Sunday, Russia and the Ukraine war are sure to remain a dominant foreign policy concern for French voters. Macron has so far charted his government’s response to the conflict in line with the European framework. He has played an active role in negotiating a diplomatic breakthrough between Moscow and Kyiv, imposing sanctions and promising to defend the French and European security and energy needs in the face of Russian threats.

Whether France will maintain its current political strategy by giving Macron another term and standing united with Europe or makes a sharp U-turn on Russia with a euro-skeptic president will only be determined after the expected second round of voting on April 24. But without doubt, the race for the presidency has laid bare the inconsistency and weakness of the candidates on Moscow and Putin.