The big winner in the French election will be Vladimir Putin

Feeling confident.
Feeling confident.
Image: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Vladimir Putin’s fortunes may be declining in the United States, but he is still well placed to win big in the French presidential election.

Three of the four leading candidates in the race for the Elysee Palace—all with a realistic chance of making it through the first round of voting next Sunday (April 23) and into the final run-off on May 7—are unabashed pro-Putin populists.

Former Trotskyist Jean-Luc Melenchon, extreme right anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen, and hardline Christian conservative Francois Fillon have all exhibited what French political commentators and scholars agree is an ideological affinity and fascination for the boss at the Kremlin.

Russia specialist Michel Eltchaninoff, the author of books about Putin and Le Pen, says the right-wing candidates admire the Russian leader’s moral conservatism, opposition to gay marriage, and call for a return to Europe’s Christian roots, as well as his resistance to American hegemony. On the far left, Melenchon is drawn to Putin’s anti-Americanism and Soviet-style dismissal of smaller Eastern European states’ desire for independence. “Three of the four candidates are clearly adopting a pro-Russian line on foreign policy,” says Benjamin Haddad, a fellow at the Hudson Institute. A former Fillon party official, Haddad now backs liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Importantly for global observers, this Russophilic push is leaving Macron, an enthusiastic champion of a stronger EU and a critic of Putin, isolated and possibly endangered. If he is in trouble, so is potentially the entire European project, transatlantic alliances and even the liberal international order. And that’s the way the Russian president wants it.

Putting “France First”

Putin’s fortunes have risen in France amid the collapse in the mainstream Socialist vote and a late campaign surge by the radical left rabble-rouser Melenchon. A fiery demagogue in the communist tradition, Melenchon, is staunchly anti-American, detests the EU and globalization, and heavily favors Russia on geopolitical issues like the Ukraine crisis. He also opposes what he calls “illegal” sanctions against annexation of the Crimea.

Armed with a protectionist, “France First”-style economic policy and a Moscow-friendly plan to exit the EU, (if Brussels doesn’t submit to his long list of demands), dismantle Europe, and even redraw its borders, Melenchon has a lot in common with Le Pen. “The Russians are our partners,” Melenchon told France 2 TV. “De Gaulle himself recognized the Russia of Stalin and Mao Zedong’s China.”

According to Elabe poll for magazine L’Express, Melenchon is currently only slightly behind Fillon, and both men are only slightly behind Le Pen (23%)and Macron (24%).

The rise in popularity of revolutionary left figures could be explained partly by France’s “higher tolerance for the far left than the far right” says Haddad. “The Communists resisted during WWII… and there has always been a strong Communist intellectual influence. It’s still controversial, for example in France to compare the extreme right and the extreme left.”

Meanwhile, former prime minister Fillon faces allegations of messy personal ties to Putin, and according to a report in Le Canard Enchaine, earned more than 50,000 Euros for arranging a meeting between the Russian president and a Lebanese billionaire. Fillon wants to remove EU sanctions on Moscow, and attracted an unprecedented Putin endorsement before he was beset by financial scandals. The right-wing candidate speaks of a Europe that stretches from the Atlantic to the Ural mountains, and argued that cooperation with Moscow and Damascus as well as Teheran and Hezbollah will cut down on terrorism.

Not surprisingly, such world views do not sit well with many liberals, including Liberation’s Jean Quatremer, who said Fillon’s rhetoric on Europe’s frontiers, like Melenchon and Le Pen’s smells like “Munich on the Seine.”

One against three

The outlier in this electoral horse race remains Macron. The 39-year-old former economy minister has the support of diverse figures like former finance minister Thierry Breton, ex-IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard, a raft of Socialist parliamentarians and ministers, and a youthful grassroots neophyte political movement. Macron wants to reform the French economy while protecting workers, and on the international front says Europe should stand firm in the face of Putin’s “dangerous” politics (link in French). In contrast, Le Pen was in Moscow last month for a photo-op with Putin. And she faces recent allegations that the Kremlin is linked to Front National finances via Russian banks.

Melenchon, Le Pen, and Fillon have all also supported the intervention of Russia in Syria, and been criticized for downplaying or ignoring (link in French) Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s breaches of international law. Like Assad himself, Melenchon immediately cast doubt on Western accounts of Damascus being behind the deadly Sarin gas attack in Idlib earlier this month. Anti-imperialist to the core, the radical left candidate has similarly criticized US intervention. “Melenchon condemns the United States which has finally tried to act. But he doesn’t condemn the war criminals Putin and Assad,” says Nicolas Tenzer, chairman of the independent liberal thinktank CERAP.

Allegations of Russian intervention in the 2016 US presidential election pushed Paris to step up its fight against foreign influence. But it is on the “soft power” front that the Kremlin is still winning the political war in France. As exposed by investigative journalist Nicolas Henin, the author of Russian France, Moscow has painstakingly built up its Paris power networks over more than a decade, on both the left and the right. This influence is peddled through political and cultural associations, and traditional diplomatic “charm” techniques.

Meanwhile, the Putin politico-media propaganda complex, including sites like RT and Sputnik in French as well as an online army of trolls, bots, and hackers, have attacked Macron relentlessly as the “globalist” candidate of “big money and finance.” These stereotypes have been loudly echoed by Le Pen, Melenchon, and Fillon.

Indeed, the Macron camp suffered cyber-hacking earlier this year that it attributed Moscow. And Wikileaks’ Julian Assange threatened in comments to Russian newspaper Izvestia to dump compromising material about Macron, who has already had to fend off a viral campaign raising doubts about his heterosexuality.

Attacking from all sides

With each lurch towards populism, characterized by anti-Muslim invective, World War II revisionism, anti-Semitism, economic isolationism, and criticism of American “imperialism,” Macron has found himself attacked from all sides. Melenchon, accused of coded anti-Semitism and “trafficking in hate” by some Jewish groups (link in French), has, like the National Front and Fillon’s Les Republicains party, also pilloried Macron for working for Rothschild bank, an institution established by one of Europe’s oldest Jewish families. As the Holocaust historian Annette Wieviorka pointed out, “if he had worked for [the bank] Credit Agricole, would they slap the same label on him?”

With the election date drawing near, the strategy of enabling illiberal candidates to spread cynicism and doubt about the democratic processes seems to be working. The parallels with the US election are striking, as Macron—like Hillary Clinton—is increasingly being outflanked on the left by populism and on the right by nationalism. 

Conservative Fillon is playing a Trump-esque role, spreading conspiracy theories about a vast state-sponsored plot to bring him down, while launching hysterical attacks on the mainstream media and the independence of French judges. Melenchon smeared journalists who investigated him of being CIA agents. Le Pen is also scaling up the populist rhetoric and playing to her anti-Semitic base by claiming France was not responsible for the 1942 Vel d’Hiv Paris round-up of 13,000 Jews.

If Macron does make it to the run-off vote, he may have difficulty convincing those who don’t warm to his likely opponent Le Pen—or her rivals—to get out and vote for him on May 7. A third of voters (link in French) say they are still undecided, and abstention rates are expected to be historically high. Macron’s refusal to offer populist solutions to France and Europe’s economic and social problems, or Muslim radicalization, won’t help him much either.

If Le Pen faces off instead against Melenchon or Fillon, the big losers will be European unity—and Russian aggression wins either way.

“A Melenchon or a Le Pen victory would clearly mean the end of the EU,” says Hudson Institute fellow Benjamin Haddad. “The French President has much more power than the American president… there’s far fewer checks and balances. So the impact on the way society is organized and how institutions function, as well on fiscal policy, immigration, the EU and foreign policy would be tremendous.”