Ukraine crisis highlights stark divisions among France’s presidential candidates

The spectre of Russian invasion is fanning fears of war in Eastern Europe. In France, the Ukraine crisis is a hot political topic for the candidates jockeying for position ahead of April’s presidential election. After all, Paris holds the rotating presidency of the European Union for the first six months of 2022, lending incumbent Emmanuel Macron a special role in diplomatic efforts to avert conflict on Europe’s eastern frontier even as his own term as French president comes to a close.

While Macron has yet to make his bid for re-election official, the top challengers vying for his job in April are starkly at odds on how best to handle the crisis in Ukraine.

With an explosive situation simmering and global stability at stake, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Wednesday spoke of a “clear and imminent” danger of Russia intervening in Ukraine and the “tens of thousands of Russian soldiers” on its borders.

How should France react to Russia’s power play in Eastern Europe? One by one, French presidential candidates have put forward their stances on the crisis and how to solve it. One takeaway? As often happens in politics, the extremes to some extent are seeing eye to eye.

Candidates at the extremes backing Russia?

Very critical of US policy, far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has come out in defence of Russian military strategy. “The Russians are amassing (troops) at their borders? Who wouldn’t do the same with a neighbour like that, a country associated with a power that is continually threatening to them?” the leader of La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) wrote in Le Monde on January 18. “We persist in the old Cold War methods. And yet anti-Russian policy is not in our interest. It is dangerous and absurd. The watchword is de-escalation,” he continued.

While advocating for easing tensions, Mélenchon disagrees with Macron, who wants France to guarantee Ukraine’s physical borders. Above all, the far-leftist favours a policy of non-alignment, another reference to the Cold War, conceiving France as belonging neither to the American sphere nor to the (post) Soviet one.

“I won’t involve France’s sovereignty. When (Macron) says, ‘We guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine’ when Ukrainians don’t even recognise the threat themselves, he does so out of bravado that gets us nowhere,” far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted on Sunday.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, leans toward privileging relations with Moscow. In her opinion, France’s energy interests (20 percent of France’s gas come from Russia) and the shared fight against Islamism both plead in favour of maintaining good relations between Paris and Moscow. The committed Europhobe maintains that the European Union, in lending its support to Ukraine, played a role in exacerbating tensions in Eastern Europe. “Whether we like it or not, Ukraine belongs to the Russian sphere of influence,” The National Rally candidate told Polish media outlet Rzeczpospolita.

“France, entangled in a European Union without vision, does not defend its interests,” far-right candidate Marine Le Pen tweeted on Tuesday. “In the Ukraine dossier, I want France to take back the role that it has always played throughout history, the role of favouring de-escalation.”

But among the principal hopefuls vying for the French presidency in April, far-right contender Éric Zemmour is surely the most pro-Russian. The pundit-turned-politician holds that Ukraine has throughout history always been “a region of empire, whether it be Russian or Austrian”. Zemmour told RTL radio that France should refrain from aligning with the US position because Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s demands are “completely legitimate”. The far-right newcomer advocates for letting Moscow of the hook entirely, concluding, “If I were president, I would say: ‘There are no more sanctions against Russia”.

“The Russian point of view is legitimate: it is not acceptable to envisage Ukraine entering NATO,” far-right presidential hopeful Éric Zemmour told LCI.

Political historian Christian Delporte provides nuance to the echo between France’s political extremes. “While the extremist parties do espouse stances that are very close, their motivations are nevertheless different,” Delporte, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Versailles, told FRANCE 24. “Mélenchon’s position is in large part related to his anti-Americanism, whereas Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, both nationalists, are more willing to lend their support to authoritarian regimes,” he explained. “In contrast, moderates, which subscribe to the logic of NATO, defend Western positions aimed at punishing Russia.”

Moderate candidates staunchly supporting Ukraine

The latter line describes Macron’s position in this crisis. At the helm, the centrist leader has proclaimed his support for Ukraine on many occasions. After long seeking warmer relations with Moscow – hosting Putin in the gilded halls of Versailles and at the presidential summer residence at Brégançon – Macron’s attitude towards his Russian counterpart cooled with each new military manoeuvre the Kremlin deployed at Russia’s western border.

On January 20, Macron proposed that France contribute to reinforcing NATO’s military presence in Romania. Five days later, Macron told a press conference that a Russian invasion would bring about a “riposte” and a “very high price”. Still, the French leader has said that he nevertheless wants to maintain dialogue with Russia.

As for conservative presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse, she held a line very similar to Macron’s in a Le Monde op-ed on January 26. Defending a vision of a Europe “gathered together from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural River”, in step with her party’s Gaullist roots, Les Républicains candidate Pécresse also advocated maintaining dialogue with the Kremlin even as she invoked the absolute necessity of guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“All infractions at the Ukrainian border would lead to sanctions if I were president of the French Republic,” conservative presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse told France 3 television.

On the left, Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo also backs the idea of a joint EU response to the conflict. “Looking at the situation in Ukraine, one wonders where Europe is,” she told France Inter radio on January 13. “While the United States is focussed on China and amid some leaders’ aggressiveness, Europe must become, or become once again, a force of influence and show itself with one voice to be more resolute in the face of authoritarian leaders.”

Greens leader Yannick Jadot, for his part, takes a decidedly harsher tone, but in substance concurs with his moderate rivals. Lamenting that Macron has yet to set foot in Kiev after nearly five years in office, Jadot wants the French president now presiding the EU Council to “organise a summit in Kiev, in Ukraine, with all the European leaders to show that Europe is united in defending the territorial integrity of, and democracy in, Ukraine”. At the same time, the Greens candidate deems it necessary that “threats be maintained”, that “the corrupt Russian oligarchy be sanctioned” and above all that “the notorious Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would bypass Ukraine and which weakens Ukraine’s geopolitical situation, be stopped”.

“Russia is a dictatorship, Putin is a dictator. We must defend Ukraine using diplomacy and the European Union,” Greens presidential candidate Yannick Jadot tweeted on Wednesday. “I call on the sitting president of the European Union, Emmanuel Macron, to organise a European Summit in Kiev.”

The stark differences of opinion between disparate extremes on one side and disparate moderates on the other recall the broadly similar party divisions over the European Union writ large. Is that dividing line enough to explain the competing views in this crisis?

“No,” said the historian Delporte. “The current dissensions are more about the resurgence of a Cold War logic that is dividing the world today,” he continued. “Forty years later, the United States is still on one side and Russia on the other. The only notable difference is the arrival of China as a third power carrying weight in the conflict. The EU hardly carries influence in the crisis. Unsurprisingly, (France’s) presidential candidates, too, are entering into that Cold War logic.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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