Update: François Fillon, as expected, defeated Alain Juppé by a wide margin, 67% to 33%.
If you’ve paid any attention to France’s presidential race, you’ll know that the Front National’s Marine Le Pen is a serious contender. But the prospect of another far-right nationalist coming to power in a major Western country is not, in fact, the only thing to worry about.
The other worry—and one that should concern not just residents of France, but the entire world—is that whether Le Pen wins or loses, France’s next president is likely to be part of a new, hardline Moscow-Paris-Washington axis: supporting Russia’s Vladimir Putin, appeasing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and turning geopolitics away from liberalism and human rights.
That’s because this Sunday, Nov. 27, is the primary for the center-right Les Républicains party, and the front-runner is François Fillon, a socially conservative, provincial French Catholic who claims Russia poses “no threat.” All polls point to Le Pen eliminating François Hollande’s unpopular Socialists in the first round of the presidential election next April, leaving a Fillon-Le Pen run-off on May 7—a contest Fillon is tipped to win.
Both Le Pen and Fillon are slavishly Russophile and close friends of Putin. They are both committed to ending sanctions against Moscow over the annexation of Crimea, and happy to prop up the war criminal in Damascus in a murky anti-ISIL alliance.
In Le Monde (link in French) on Nov. 24, Fillon confirmed his geopolitical stance. Parroting Moscow’s arguments against “unrealistic” sanctions, he said France “must know how to speak to all states” and called for a “frank and solid renewal of relations” with Putin—and with Donald Trump, whom Fillon insists we must stop labeling a populist.
Fillon also echoes much of Le Pen’s (and Putin’s) rhetoric against Islam, in a country still under a state of emergency after a series of huge terrorist attacks. Jewish leaders, too, are alarmed by his seeming dog-whistle comments (French) about French Jews’ alleged history of not “living by the rules of the French Republic.”
Some Paris-based Russia experts think Fillon may prove to be even more willing a Putin ally than the bombastic, impulsive Trump, and at least as zealous as Le Pen. Nicolas Tenzer (fr), chairman of think tank Centre d’Etude et de Reflection pour l’Action Politique (CERAP), told Quartz that “we all know that [Le Pen] would be Putin’s puppet,” but that Fillon “is just cutting and pasting Kremlin propaganda. His approach expresses exactly what Russia is saying, nothing else. It would of course endanger France’s security, but also Europe’s cohesiveness. France would become the sick man of Europe.” A Fillon victory would shatter the existing Paris-Berlin consensus towards Moscow, leaving an isolated Angela Merkel as the last big domino to fall in a Europe French historian Françoise Thom (fr, paywall) argues is becoming a “vassal” of Russia.
The Fillon-Putin bromance goes back to 2008, when Fillon was Nicolas Sarkozy’s prime minister and met often with his Russian counterpart. On Nov. 23, in a brazen, unprecedented televised intervention in the French primary race, Putin rewarded his Gallic acolyte, noting their close “personal relations” and feting Fillon as “tough, but decent and a real professional.” Russian media and politicians have likewise been jubilant at Fillon’s surprise lead in the race, celebrating the success of the “French Trump who will break up Europe.”
The parallels with the US election are eerie, down to disturbing allegations (fr) of Kremlin meddling in the race. A far-right social-media campaign tagged Alain Juppé (fr), Fillon’s rival for the Les Republicains candidacy, as “Ali Juppé” for unproven claims that he made compromises with political Islamists over the construction of a new mosque in Bordeaux, where he is mayor. Even Hillary Clinton’s loss has hurt Juppé; he’s being unfavorably compared to the vanquished Democrat as arrogant, out of touch, an establishment elitist, and soft on Islam.
Fillon’s statements on Russia and Syria are increasingly worrying. Despite clear evidence that Russian bombing raids targeted civilians in Aleppo, he recently tweeted (fr) that “Russia is the biggest country in the world but we keep pushing it towards Asia when it poses no threat.” He holds views remarkably similar (fr, paywall) to those of the pro-Russian Franco-Syrian lobby, which wants a Western rapprochement with Moscow against ISIL to keep Assad in power.
Last month, Fabien Baussart, a Paris businessman seen as close to Putin and Fillon, and his wife, Randa Kassis, an Assad-friendly Syrian politician, joined Donald Trump Jr around a table at the Ritz (paywall) to discuss a Washington-Moscow-Damascus accord. On Nov. 25, Baussart lauded Fillon in the Kremlin mouthpiece Sputnik News as “the only candidate who has a geostrategic vision, who understands Russia and can engage in dialogue with Russia.” Fillon, meanwhile, has previously said (fr) that France should back Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist outfit backed by Iran, alongside Putin’s and Assad’s forces, to combat ISIL.
With a Fillon-Le Pen run-off, Putin would have it both ways, having extended huge loans to the cash-strapped Front National and letting his cyber shock-troops loose on Juppé. Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who was imprisoned by ISIL for 10 months, laments that Juppé (fr), in rightly opposing dialogue with Assad, is committing “political suicide”; public opinion is not on his side.
Worst of all, the rise of Fillon offers a terrible dilemma to more liberal French voters: To stop Le Pen, they must back Fillon.
Given the division among US Republicans over how to deal with Moscow, the French presidential primary does not augur well for a workable political solution to the crisis in Iraq and Syria. The signs point towards a concerted push to shore up the mass-murdering dictator in Damascus, while bolstering Putin, all in an attempt to defeat ISIL. But at what cost?