Why you should care
Because after April’s presidential vote, France is likely to lean far enough to the right to hug Moscow.
What’s Russian for “Fancy some caviar?” Diplomats everywhere would be wise to find out. While many of Donald Trump’s American opponents portray the new U.S. president as Vladimir Putin’s lapdog, the truth is that Russia has upped its street cred on the global diplomatic stage — from the Washington Beltway to Syria to the Far East.
Even the ancient home of Jeanne d’Arc is poised to cozy up with the Kremlin — given the likely contenders in the second round of France’s presidential election. Whether France elects François Fillon, Marine Le Pen or Emmanuel Macron, it’s certain that Russia will win: All three candidates have expressed an affinity for Putin.
Et alors? This is a far cry from the current state of play. For decades, European unification has been partly about the “perceived threat of Russian power,” says Jim Shields, professor of French politics at the U.K.’s Aston University. The result was a tight-knit Western alliance throughout the Cold War and an orientation toward liberalism and human rights among politicos like President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Turning toward a “cruder policy of Realpolitik” could make responses like sanctions against Russia, in response to Putin overstepping in his perceived backyard, unthinkable, says Shields.
Moscow wouldn’t be too disappointed to see the momentum swing from Fillon to Macron, with Le Pen picking up some too.
The French Left has all but collapsed — Hollande isn’t even running — and it’s looking like the spring run-off will be between the conservative François Fillon and far-right Marine Le Pen, says Shields. Controversy is threatening to derail Fillon — he’s accused of paying his wife a government wage for no services in return, and he’s threatened to not run at all if investigated. The only other potential upset? Centrist progressive En Marche! Party candidate — formerly an independent and Socialist — in the form of ex–Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. For a while now, most had assumed that, between Fillon and Le Pen, it would be Fillon’s game to lose. Getting his hand allegedly caught in the till, however, “robs him of one of his strongest cards: his reputation for probity,” says Shields.
Fillon and Putin go way back and on a personal level. Back when Fillon was prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, Putin was his Russian equivalent. “They forged an amicable relationship that has endured, with Fillon becoming one of the most vocal advocates of a rapprochement with Putin’s Russia today,” says Shields. Policy-wise, this could mean drawing a line under what Fillon has called “ineffective” EU sanctions against Russia over Crimea and for a new geopolitical alliance with Russia to help end the Syrian conflict, as well as terrorism by ISIS at home and abroad.
Le Pen, meanwhile, “admires Putin’s strongman image, nationalist agenda and approach to global affairs,” he adds. She’s also in favor, according to David Bell, emeritus professor of French government and politics at Leeds University, of returning to the great European nation states of yore, which puts Russia front and center alongside France. Le Pen has defended the annexation of Crimea and promised to work closely with Putin, he adds.
Macron also wants closer ties with Russia and to lift sanctions — “so Moscow wouldn’t be too disappointed to see the momentum swing from Fillon to Macron, with Le Pen picking up some too,” says Shields, noting how Fillon’s dip in the polls helps both Macron and Le Pen. Either way, “Putin can sleep easy.”
All three candidates see Russia as a powerful friend for facing global crises, and Fillon has already been trying to get Merkel to ease up on Russia to help “cultivate a new alliance to tackle Islamist terrorism and other international challenges,” says Shields. There’s also a case being made for not being shut out. If Trump and Putin get along as well as pundits suggest, a U.S.–Russian alliance could weaken the EU’s influence in Washington. So Fillon is likely to push for a new security and economic cooperation between the EU and Russia — an about-face on today’s attempts to isolate Russia and contain Moscow’s influence. And in return? Some believe this could mean the West will increasingly recognize Russia’s sphere of influence in its “near-abroad,” says Shields.
Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C., think tank, worries this would be demoralizing to Central and Eastern European countries “who will see a general rapprochement between Russia and the West as a signal that they, too, will be forced to acquiesce to Russia in light of less support from Paris, Washington and so on,” he says. Alexander Motyl, politics professor at Rutgers University-Newark, agrees. “Trump’s bromance with Putin will terrify all the East Europeans,” he says, adding that a pro-Russian French policy will just “strengthen Trump’s romantic inclinations.”
Not everyone agrees that a Fillon win will lead to huge changes. Despite Fillon’s rhetoric, Bell reckons that the French politician would simply open a promised “dialogue” with Russia. “Dialogue and a dime will get you a good cup of coffee,” he jokes. But he acknowledges that Fillon is Gaullist and that if he rekindles the Gaullist notion that France and Russia have a natural affinity and that NATO infringes upon French sovereignty, there could be an upset in European power dynamics. And if Le Pen wins? She aims to disrupt the EU and see a resurgence of the European nation states and great powers, Bell explains. So, while Le Pen is unlikely to get a majority in parliament, if she wins, “all bets are off.”