Putin’s French candidate, Marine Le Pen

Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 19 April 2022

As Putin’s soldiers fight in eastern Ukraine, he is also involved in a battle much further west. Tragically, that western battle may even go his way.

In the run-off vote for France’s presidential election, Putin may not appear on the ballot. Yet without him, the contest would be a different one.

Marine Le Pen has a good chance of winning the French presidential election for many reasons. Her ties to Putin’s Russia, however, serve as a reminder of how much the Kremlin has sabotaged Western democracies.

A Le Pen victory would be a blow to the EU and Nato, and thus a victory for the Kremlin.

To appreciate the novelty of a Le Pen presidency for France, it is useful to recall the latest presidential elections.

Twenty years ago, Le Pen’s father had also made it to the second-round vote. Jean-Marie Le Pen, though, had an even more radical positioning, and the rest of France united against far-right extremism. In the end, Jacques Chirac won an astonishing 82 percent of the vote, despite not being a popular candidate.

Le Pen tried his luck again in 2007, but his 10.4 percent did not secure him a place in the run-offs. His daughter Marine took over at the 2012 election, came third and secured 17 percent.

With a fragmented field of candidates, she made it to the second round on 20 percent in 2017. However, in the run-off she lost with only 33.9 percent of the vote.

Next Sunday’s second round vote is close, however. Close enough for Le Pen to win the presidency. Le Pen trails President Emmanuel Macron by 47 to 53 points in the latest opinion polls, close to the margin of error.

What has happened in the past 20 years to explain the rise of a fringe party to the gates of the Élysée Palace?

The gradual repositioning of the party her father founded explains some of that. She applied liberal amounts of softener to the party’s image, even changing its name from the National Front to the National Rally in 2018.

But such political marketing would not have been sufficient. Le Pen also benefited from some external help, and that came through Putin.

As practically no other international leader wanted to be seen with Le Pen, Putin met her in Moscow in 2017. A photograph of that meeting still featured in a pamphlet her party printed and distributed at the beginning of this year’s campaign.

Le Pen’s political activities were also funded by Russia. Her party borrowed €9 million from a Russian bank in 2014, an unusual source of credit for a political party in Western Europe.

On the flip side of this support from Moscow, Le Pen has consistently supported Russian positions. Even three years after the annexation of Crimea, she downplayed its illegality. “I absolutely disagree that it was an illegal annexation. A referendum was held and residents of Crimea chose to rejoin Russia,” she claimed in a TV interview.

In another interview, Le Pen asked rhetorically, “Russia is not a threat to France – why should I be hostile to Russia?,” only to even suggest a French trading relationship with Russia on a par with the US.

Moscow’s preferences and Le Pen’s positions have always had a certain symbiosis. Both are hostile to the West’s military alliance, Nato, and the European integration process. This hostility serves as a platform for Le Pen’s nationalist populism. For Moscow, it is the essence of its geo-strategic ambitions.

Each step that Moscow took to weaken the West, through its various channels, helped Le Pen. She was not so much a pawn in Putin’s game, but a willing accomplice.

Of course, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is so abhorrent that not even Le Pen would defend it. Nevertheless, she does not have to worry too much about a fallout from Ukraine for her campaign because the election is mainly focused on domestic issues.

And so France is heading to the final polls next Sunday. Le Pen has tried to portray herself as someone concerned about the problems of ordinary people. Unsurprisingly, her strongest support is in the provinces and in lower income groups.

But her international agenda could have been drafted in the Kremlin.

At a news conference last week, Le Pen said she would “call for a strategic rapprochement between Nato and Russia” once the Russian-Ukrainian conflict was settled by a peace treaty.

On defence, she vowed to end Franco-German military co-operation and withdraw from Nato’s integrated command structure.

While pledging to keep France in the EU, Le Pen has taken a confrontational stance on the organisation’s budget and reach.

All these views would have been fringe positions in France, as evidenced by the past 20 years of presidential elections. Not any more. Thanks to Russia’s influence (and potential interference), the political landscape of France has shifted enough to give a candidate with such extremist positions a good shot at the presidency.

That should bring back memories. A very similar backstory propelled Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.

It would be worthwhile for an international investigation into the many ways Putin has influenced Western politics in the aftermath of Putin’s aggression on Ukraine. His role in polarising Western politics. His promotion of fringe views. His fragmentation of once stable political systems.

Since the assault on Western democracy seems lifted straight from a KGB textbook, none of this should be surprising.

Meanwhile, France will elect a new president. The French will have the choice. A hopeless candidate, distant and ineffective. And Marine Le Pen.

For anyone who does not want Putin to win, the choice is not any more appealing. But it should be clear.

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