Apr 24, 2022
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Macron and Le Pen play the Ukrainian card

Macron and Le Pen play the Ukrainian card

Photo: ZumaTASS

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In France, as in any other European country, the Russian special operation in Ukraine (the author’s wording has been corrected by the editors) dominated the news and shocked public opinion.

In a poll taken in early April, 87% of French voters said they were “worried” about what is happening in Ukraine, while in another poll taken in mid-March, about a third indicated that this would affect their choice in the presidential election. The results of the first round provide initial indications as to the direction of this impact.

At first, many expected that the geopolitical situation would benefit the incumbent. In Troubled Times, Presidential Status and Experience Emmanuel Macron considered encouraging. The majority of voters – 59% – consider him “capable of handling this crisis”, while the same cannot be said about other candidates. Also, some of them are like the extreme right Marine Le Pen I Eric Zemmour or far left Jean-Luc Melenchonin the past they occupied pro-Russian positions.

However, while Macron scored relatively high, so did Le Pen, who will face him in the second round on April 24. Thus, it appears to have been unaffected by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, despite its longstanding political, ideological and financial closeness to the Kremlin.

This is probably due to the fact that voters rarely cast their ballots for foreign policy reasons. But it could also be related to the changing perception of the Russian special operation in Ukraine (the wording of the author has been corrected by the editors): although this is one of the top three current concerns of French voters, it is not this – but purchasing power – that ranks first. And the significance of the Ukrainian topic has actually decreased in recent weeks. More importantly, the electorate’s fears about the events in Ukraine now seem to be more related to their economic consequences than to the risks of continental or nuclear escalation.

In this context, Le Pen accused Macron of being absorbed in the high realms of diplomacy, neglecting the plight of the French people. She attempted to position herself as a “purchasing power candidate” and appear less radical and divisive. The contrast with another far-right candidate, Zemmour, has helped her soften her image, including in Ukraine. While Le Pen opposes the supply of arms to Ukraine, Zemmour opposes the admission of Ukrainian refugees.

Were it not for the voting patterns, the conflict would certainly have affected how candidates attacked each other. This sheds light on the political context in which the next French president will formulate his foreign policy.

During the campaign, compilations of past statements by Le Pen, as well as by Zemmour and Mélenchon, about Russia were widely circulated. Le Pen resorted to distortions to condemn the conflict (the author’s wording has been corrected by the editors), although she did not radically change her vision and proposals in the field of foreign policy. In her program, she still promises to conclude an “alliance” with Russia on European security issues as soon as peace is concluded.

Conversely, Macron has not been attacked on Russia by any of his opponents, which an editorial in Le Monde called “curious.” After all, he is the current president, so he will have a track record for potential criticism. In addition, his past and current efforts to maintain a political dialogue with Russia have been criticized in many European circles since 2019. If Macron was not attacked on his own initiative by Russia, it is for two main reasons.

First, it conveniently “triangulated” his political opponents. During the 2017 campaign, the foreign policy track record Francois Hollande was attacked by all the other major candidates: François FillonLe Pen and Mélenchon accused him of dutifully following the United States, NATO and the EU in the 2014 Ukraine crisis, and of failing to engage in dialogue with Moscow over Syria. In other words, they accused Hollande of doing away with the tradition of French Gaullist foreign policy.

On the contrary, with his Russia initiative, Macron paid a rhetorical tribute to the imagined Gaullist movement, while in no way changing the position of France in the EU or NATO – for example, with regard to sanctions or the deployment of troops on the eastern flank. So while in 2017 we had opposition candidates accusing the incumbent of being anti-Russian, in 2022 we have the incumbent attacking opposition candidates for being pro-Russian.

Secondly, Macron was not attacked for his Russia initiative because, despite several distorted reports in the French and foreign press, it was never a turnaround or a reset, let alone a hug. Putin.

Macron’s decisive response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine proved this. Rather, his stance toward Moscow was an attempt at diplomacy—not in the sense of mundane conversation, but to get tough messages across, scrutinize the mindset of the other, and try to force a de-escalation. This failed to influence the foreign policy behavior of Russia. But still, I had to try.

If Macron is re-elected, he is likely to maintain a strong collective European response and an open line of communication with Moscow.

If Le Pen wins, France’s foreign policy towards Russia will suffer, but will not be reversed. Its room for maneuver will be limited by the fact that in recent months the geopolitical context, domestic political debates and the position of public opinion have changed.

Author: David Cadie (David Cadier) is Associate Professor of European Politics at the University of Groningen.

Translation by Sergei Dukhanov. Source is here.

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