Far-right candidate Le Pen’s proximity to Russia’s Putin doesn’t seem to have affected her performance in the first round of France’s presidential elections. But that could change in the run-off vote.
https://www.dw.com-Her opponents say Europe will be worse off if Marine Le Pen wins the French election
When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in late February, the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen joined in the chorus of international voices condemning the aggression.
That was just six weeks before she came second in France’s first round of presidential elections and qualified for the run-off vote against the incumbent Emmanuel Macron.
“No reason can justify the launch of a military operation against Ukraine by Russia which destroys the balance of peace in Europe — that needs to be condemned unambiguously,” the National Rally’s (RN) leader wrote in a press release.
Le Pen added that the military actions had to stop immediately.
She also told French media it was “natural” for France to take in Ukrainian refugees.
A shift in position
But these words stood in stark contrast with Le Pen’s historic proximity to Vladimir Putin.
The Russian leader had welcomed her in the Kremlin in 2017, a few weeks ahead of France’s last presidential election. The photo of their handshake appears in one of Le Pen’s current campaign flyers, printed before the war and later scrapped.
In her manifesto, she pleads for an “alliance” with Russia, for example regarding European security policy.
For her last presidential election campaign in 2017, the far-right leader received a €9 million ($9.8 million) loan from a Russian bank.
Equally in 2017, Le Pen told French broadcaster BFMTV regarding Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, largely condemned by the international community: “I don’t think at all you can say there has been an illegal annexation. The inhabitants of Crimea declared in a referendum that they wanted to join Russia.”
Until shortly before the war, Le Pen said she did not believe “at all” Russia would invade Ukraine.
‘Typical of a far-right movement’
Anton Shekhovtsov, director of Vienna-based NGO, Centre for Democratic Integrity, and author of the 2017 book, “Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir,” says Le Pen’s stance used to be typical for far-right movements.
“Parties like the RN or Italy’s League … used to think that showing they’re allies with the important geopolitical player Putin would mean they’d no longer be fringe parties but belong to an alternative mainstream,” he explained to DW.
“Of course, now that Putin has become toxic in the eyes of the international society, Le Pen can’t afford to be seen as close to Russia any more — after all, she’s a populist, she listens to what the people say,” Shekhovtsov added.
A poll published by Ifop in early March found that 79% of the French public have a negative opinion of Putin.
The war’s impact on candidates’ ratings
Le Pen’s ratings took a dent right after the start of the invasion, despite her denouncement of Russia.
President Macron meanwhile went up in the polls, helped by the so-called “rally around the flag” effect uniting people behind their leader in times of crisis.
Macron, who had in the past tried but failed to create a new European security structure including Russia, was at the forefront of international attempts to mediate between Ukraine and Russia.
But then, the electoral tide turned.
“Voters saw that Macron’s efforts didn’t yield results,” Paris-based Sciences Po University research boss and Russia specialist, Jacques Rupnik, told DW.
“Meanwhile, Le Pen started to concentrate on the effects of the war, and how Western sanctions were driving up prices at home,” Rupnik added.
She had been campaigning as the candidate close to the people and promised to bring down prices for essential goods. That addressed the voters’ main concern — a decline in their spending power.
Macron mostly stayed away from the campaign trail, concentrating on the international crisis, appearing disconnected from voters’ concerns.
It further helped Le Pen that she concentrated on her traditional electorate in the first ballot, believes Gilles Ivaldi, a Nice-based research fellow for politics at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and specialist in the far-right.
“Her usual supporters are by and large from the working or lower middle class, who are not that interested in geopolitical, international topics,” Ivaldi told DW.
And even though Le Pen did, for example, repeat her viewpoint regarding Crimea just a few days before the first round, her voters didn’t seem to mind.
The first ballot’s outcome was much tighter than anticipated just a few weeks ago.
The second round of voting could be more of an uphill struggle for Le Pen. Polls predict Macron and Le Pen will be neck-and-neck in the run-off vote on April 24.
Nevertheless, Le Pen will have to widen her appeal if she wants a chance to win.
“She will need to gather support from more moderate and educated people, who are better informed and more worried about her proximity to Russia,” Ivaldi said.
Those include voters from centre-right candidate Valerie Pecresse, the roughly 26% of the electorate who didn’t participate in round one, and supporters of left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Ivaldi thinks that Macron’s camp will therefore try to use Le Pen’s ties with Putin against her.
“The far right’s closeness to autocrats such as Putin, but also Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the Polish right-wing government, goes to show that the RN still is an extremist party with a nationalistic and xenophobic platform,” the researcher underlined.
Economics Minister and Macron supporter Bruno Le Maire called Le Pen “a Putin ally” on French radio station RTL on Monday.
“These are two opposing visions,” he said, adding that Europe would be a different place if Le Pen were to win.
Edited by: Ruairi Casey