Alexander Gray is a Research Fellow at Policy Exchange.
It is often said that London is bought by Russian money – yet no major political figure on the British right has expressed pro-Russia or NATO-sceptic views since the current crisis began.
By contrast, leading French politicians have shown themselves to be more understanding of Russia’s position, and remain appreciably sceptical of NATO.
The French presidential election will be the first major electoral test since the invasion of Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the crisis has at times been uncertain, almost naïve, in his apparent belief that it offers an opportunity to present himself as the moving spirit in European diplomacy.
Nonetheless, it seems on the whole to be strengthening his position. Four weeks before the first round, he is well ahead of the other candidates, and his lead has expanded in the last month. He is currently polling at 29 per cent voting intentions in the first round. This is a respectable score in France’s two-round electoral system, and puts him well ahead of his closest rival, Marine Le Pen, currently on 16 per cent.
Crucially, Ukraine figures high on the list of issues people say will affect their vote. A poll published on 5 March reveals that 33 per cent say the war in Ukraine will affect their vote, second only to purchasing power on 52 per cent. Given the scope for energy price rises in the wake of the war in Ukraine, the two issues are linked.
This is not the first time that foreign affairs have had such an impact on a presidential race. Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the then-incumbent president and one thought by many to be a modernising conservative of his time, was widely criticised for undermining Western solidarity in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by holding a summit with Leonid Brezhnev in Warsaw in 1980. Francois Mitterrand’s attacks on d’Estaing over appeasement of the Soviets played a part in his subsequent victory in the 1981 election.
While Macron’s current popularity is partly due to ‘rallying round the flag’, (comparable to Francois Hollande’s 20-point surge following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris), he is also strengthened by the weakening of his rivals. Three of his four closest competitors (those with over ten per cent of voting intentions) are having to justify past pro-Putin comments.
Marine Le Pen, of the Rassemblement National, who has long-standing Kremlin links, is now trying to withdraw 1.2 million election pamphlets featuring her shaking hands with Putin. But this is complicated by her having until a very late stage consistently downplayed predictions of the invasion, which she said she “did not believe at all”.
Similarly Eric Zemmour (Reconquête), who has a history of praising Putin as a “patriot” and of supporting Russian allegations of NATO expansionism, now has to live down his comment in December that he was ready to “bet that Russia will not invade Ukraine”.
Though he has now condemned the “unjustifiable” invasion “without reservations”, he has added he hopes Ukrainian refugees do not come to France. This puts him at odds with most of the electorate – recent polls suggest 79 per cent, including even Marine Le Pen, are in favour of accepting Ukrainian refugees.
On the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise has described Russia as “not an enemy but a partner”. As recently as 20 February, he said French politicians “have a duty to ensure Ukraine does not enter NATO in the East”. Like the others, he has had to backtrack, saying Russia “takes responsibility for a terrible setback in history [which] creates the immediate danger of a generalised conflict that threatens all of humanity”.
Though his popularity had been rising, he will now have to face wider public scrutiny of his positions on international affairs.
Valerie Pécresse, the conservative (Les Républicains) candidate, has benefited less from this than might be expected. While Macron has been capturing the public attention, she has found it hard to differentiate her position from his without losing credibility by appearing either too hard- or too soft-line on Ukraine.
Even if Macron is seen internationally as too dovish on Russia, the historic complacency of many French politicians on the subject place him, nationally, at the more hawkish end of the spectrum. The combined voting intentions for Zemmour, le Pen and Mélenchon suggest that over 40 per cent of the electorate support candidates with questionable views on Russia and NATO (in contrast to Britai, where both sides of the house stand firmly behind the Government’s robust approach on Ukraine).
So the reactions of Zemmour, Le Pen and Mélenchon to Scholz’s upending of German defence policy, though not yet clear, will provide a good indication of the likely future evolution of defence and political cooperation between France and Germany, its closest partner since 1945.
It is unclear whether Macron’s popularity will last until the election. But it seems improbable that any of the current crises, notably over Ukraine or energy prices, will deteriorate far or fast enough to unhorse him between now and then, even in those regions (such as the South-East and North-East) where he is weakest. So his present position is strong.