France Election: Le Pen’s Late Surge Rattles Europe Amid Russian Security Threat
France goes to the polls Sunday for the final round of voting in the presidential election, with Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally party just a few points behind incumbent Emmanuel Macron. A Le Pen victory would have big implications for European security following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In a fiery televised debate Wednesday, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron sought to highlight links between Marine Le Pen’s far-right party and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her National Rally party took several loans from Russia in 2014, including a $9.75 million loan from the Kremlin-linked First Czech Russian Bank.
“For our country, this is bad news, because you depend on the Russian regime and you depend on Putin.,” Macron said. “You don’t speak to other leaders, you speak to your banker when you speak to Russia, that’s the problem… None of us went to seek financing from a Russian bank, and especially not from one that is close to power in Russia.”
Le Pen said it was well known that French banks had refused to lend her money, so she sought financial assistance in Russia.
What would a Le Pen presidency mean for Europe’s security at a time of conflict? Her approach to Russia is in stark contrast to that of most Western leaders. Speaking at a press event earlier this month, she outlined her policy on the conflict in Ukraine.
“As soon as the Russian-Ukrainian war is over and has been settled by a peace treaty, I will call for the implementation of a strategic rapprochement between NATO and Russia.” Le Pen said.
While she has condemned the invasion of Ukraine, the 53-year-old National Rally leader has been far less critical of Vladimir Putin himself. She has criticized the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine by NATO members and plans to weaken French links with the alliance.
“Once elected president, I will leave NATO’s integrated command, but I won’t renounce the application of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty on collective security.” Le Pen told reporters April 13.
A Le Pen victory would severely weaken Western unity against Russia, says French political analyst Renaud Foucart of Lancaster University.
“She has been among the first if not the only French candidate to recognize Crimea, the annexation of Crimea by Russia. So very, very clearly she will not be in favor of stronger sanctions. She has opposed them, and she has been very, very vocal about opposing sanctions on fossil fuels, on gas, on oil from Russia.,” Foucart told VOA.
However, in recent weeks Le Pen has risen in the polls, despite her past links with a Russian regime accused of war crimes in Ukraine. Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United Nations and now a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council, says Le Pen has attempted to transform her image during the campaign.
“She has distanced herself somehow really from Putin. She has condemned the attack against Ukraine. Second point, you know in France — like in the U.S. — elections are decided not on foreign policy issues but on domestic policy issues. And like in the U.S., France is facing a wave of inflation.”
Le Pen has focused her campaign on the rising cost of living and has characterized Macron as an aloof president more obsessed with Europe than France. Polls shows she has gained votes in poorer areas of France, and among younger generations who feel disillusioned by a lack of jobs and opportunities.
For years, Le Pen campaigned for France to leave the European Union. Now she says so-called “Frexit” is not her policy.
“The British got rid of the Brussels bureaucracy, which they could never bear, to move to an ambitious concept of global Britain,” she said April 13, in reference to Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU.
“This is not our project. We want to reform the E.U. from the inside. The more we free ourselves from the Brussels straitjacket while remaining inside the EU, the more we will open ourselves up to the wider world. It seems to me that’s what the British understood well,” Le Pen said.
Former French Ambassador to the U.N. Gérard Araud says Le Pen’s reform agenda is so radical that it will inevitably fail.
“She is going to change it so dramatically, so radically, that actually either she won’t implement her program or she will leave the European Union.”
“If she is elected, basically it will be quite chaotic. The euro will go down, and there will be an emerging crisis between Paris and Berlin because she wants really to put an end to all Franco-German cooperation. And of course a crisis with Brussels, with lots of uncertainties down the road,” Araud told VOA.
Analyst Renaud Foucart agrees: “Most importantly, she’s not clear about who her allies (in the EU) would be. In order to reach that kind of agreement you would need to find other countries that are like-minded. But even within her own political family… she doesn’t seem to be able to find agreement.”
European leaders have largely avoided commenting on the elections. However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, a NATO ally, said Thursday that ‘it would be a good thing for the world’ if Macron was re-elected.
Even if Macron does win a second term, France faces difficult problems in the years ahead, says Gérard Araud.
“Socially, there is something which is very unhealthy. Because Macron has been elected in 2017, and if he is re-elected in 2022, it will be the same – basically by the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots’. And so there is this deep rift in the French society,” Araud said.