Putin’s long shadow hangs over an unpredictable French election

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The writer is editorial director and columnist at Le Monde

It was supposed to be a walk in the park for Emmanuel Macron. 

Since 1965, when the French first started electing their head of state by popular vote, no sitting president had been re-elected while keeping a majority in parliament. François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac each won a second term but had their wings clipped by an opposition government. Two weeks ago, Macron had high hopes that he would be the first to overcome this challenge, with the involuntary help of an unlikely ally: Vladimir Putin.

The threat of an invasion of Ukraine, then the war itself, thrust the French president into a frantic global diplomacy effort. While the other 11 candidates in the two-round presidential election struggled to divert voters’ attention away from the tragic news in eastern Europe, Macron, ever the statesman, spent his time with his G7 and Nato partners. The media were duly briefed on his calls with Moscow and Kyiv. For him, there was no need to campaign. The only campaign that seemed to matter to voters was Putin’s. The “rally the flag” effect worked wonders, and Macron’s poll numbers rose.

That was two weeks ago. As petrol and food prices steadily increased, voters started to realise that Putin’s war in Ukraine was not just a humanitarian and geopolitical disaster, but one that would have an impact on their daily lives in France. One candidate understood this better than all the others: the far-right politician Marine Le Pen.

The war has provided Le Pen with a magic weapon: the cost of living issue. She has deftly refocused her campaign, promoting herself as the protector of those most affected by price rises. Sanctions against Russia, she argues, should not hurt the French people. She has promised to suppress the value added tax on a basket of basic goods and to erase petrol hikes. Soon enough, the cost of living became the number one concern on voters’ minds. Le Pen’s poll numbers went up. Macron’s went down.

This is Le Pen’s third presidential campaign and, at 53, she’s learnt her lesson. In 2017, she lost to Macron by a 66/34 margin as a strident anti-immigration, Eurosceptic supporter of Crimea’s annexation by Russia. Five years later she has softened her image, avoids shouting, loves kittens and the euro, boasts “the strongest democratic credentials” and doesn’t mention immigrants so much. Given the circumstances, it is difficult for her not to mention Putin at all, but she has successfully managed to put a smokescreen over her past sympathies for the Russian leader, whom she visited in the Kremlin in 2017.

Le Pen’s party is still paying back a loan granted by a bank in Moscow to help finance her 2017 campaign and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have proved a huge embarrassment for her. But her rival on the far-right, Eric Zemmour, another Putinophile, handled the issue far less cleverly; he stood his ground on Putin, misjudged the public mood and stated that refugees from Ukraine were not welcome. As such, he served as an unexpected lightning rod for Le Pen. As he crashed in the polls, she rose. 

Macron has realised that the only real energy in this lacklustre campaign is now on Le Pen’s side and belatedly thrown himself into battle. His team had been desperately waiting for that shift, but it is already late in the game. He has lost the momentum.

On Friday, two days ahead of the first round this Sunday, the gap between Macron and Le Pen had narrowed to the margin of error (26.5 per cent to 23 per cent). As the atrocities in Bucha brought the war in Ukraine back to the centre of the national conversation, the Putin factor in the French campaign took yet another turn. Barring a surprising surge for the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, now in third position in opinion polls, Le Pen will again face Macron in the run-off. The elephant in the room during those two weeks will be the Russian leader.

The French president has already started to take aim at Le Pen’s admiration for the man in the Kremlin; his campaign is promoting a video clip of an election poster of her which, when torn up, exposes Putin’s face underneath. Meanwhile Le Pen is busy trying to justify her programme, which advocates a “security alliance” with Russia and the end of joint defence projects with Germany. “This was before the war”, she replied in a television interview this week when asked about the co-operation with Russia. But sure enough, “in a few years’ time”, she said, Russia will have to be reconnected to Europe to prevent it from falling into China’s arms — “just as Mr Macron wanted”.

This is all music to the Kremlin’s ears. In 2017, after interfering in the US presidential campaign which brought Donald Trump to the White House, Russia targeted the French presidential election. Macron’s campaign email accounts were hacked and tens of thousands of messages were leaked.

Five years later, Putin’s shadow looms large over the French political scene and the stakes are even higher. Le Pen’s election, following Viktor Orban’s re-election in Hungary, would provide the Russian leader with a trophy at least as valuable as a military victory in Donbas. His dream of destabilising Europe would finally come true. There are two weeks left for France to wake up, debate the price of democracy and prove him wrong.

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