Could France Become a Russian Ally?

April 13, 2022

A political earthquake is shaking up France’s presidential election, as the country veers sharply to the right. In the first round of the election, Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent, beat Marine Le Pen, the leading far-right candidate…but by less than five points.

France is very different from the United States, of course, but there are some striking similarities in their recent political trends. Working-class voters and small business owners have abandoned traditional parties, flocking to politicians who demonize immigrants and attack globalization and “out of touch elites”.

And the French might just elect as their next leader a politician who openly admires Vladimir Putin and despises NATO and the European Union. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally party, has even refused to endorse sanctions against Russia, despite the horrors in Ukraine. If she became President, NATO could lose one of its main pillars.

Imagine a world in which Le Pen became President of France, and Donald Trump won the U.S. election in 2024. This would be Vladimir Putin’s dream scenario…and it could mean the end of NATO and Western resistance to Putin’s imperial designs. Liberal democracy could become an endangered species.

Extremists dominated the first round

Under the French system, only the two top vote-getters proceed to the second, final round. This will be held on April 24.

Here’s some very bad news for Macron and for France: he won less than 30% of the vote, 27.8% vs. Le Pen’s 23.1%. Meanwhile, two other extremist politicians together garnered 30% of the vote, which shows how fractured French politics have become and how thin Macron’s base of support is. Many of these candidates’ supporters may vote for Le Pen, or simply abstain from the second round, rather than vote for Macron.

More bad news: about 50% of the electorate voted for politicians who oppose France’s participation in NATO.

Meanwhile, candidates from the two former mainstream parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, failed to attract much support at all. In a very rough analogy, that’s as though the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. had disappeared from the political stage. In a positive sign for Macron, politicians who won 15% of the vote have urged their followers to back him in the second round. But will they do so?

On the far left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former Communist, won a shocking 22% of the votes. Melenchon hates the United States, NATO and business in general. Although Melenchon called upon his followers not to vote for Le Pen, he has refused to endorse Macron. Many of his backers may have been registering a protest vote, but it’s not clear how many of them will hold their noses and vote for Macron.

On the far right, Eric Zemmour, a Trump-like candidate who all but calls Arab Muslims rapists and murderers, racked up 7% of the vote. Zemmour is so rabidly anti-immigrant that he makes Le Pen look somewhat respectable by comparison. In his concession speech, Zemmour asked his voters to support Le Pen, so she will probably pick up his votes.

The final round could be close

This is the second time that Macron and Le Pen have faced off against each other. Four years ago, Macron beat Le Pen badly in the second round of the election, 66%-34%. Le Pen is no match for him intellectually, and he trounced her in the debate that took place in that election.

However, this time Le Pen is riding a strong populist wave that could put her in the Elysee Palace. Although the polls narrowly favor Macron for the second round, he has made several unforced errors in this election, and he does not have much time to recover.

Macron: parallels with Obama

Macron resembles Barack Obama in several respects. He is young, dynamic, extremely intelligent and an eloquent public speaker…in French and English. His election four years ago represented a sharp break in French politics. Macron formed a new party, La Republique en Marche (The Republic on the Move), and he essentially eliminated the Socialist and Republican parties as contenders in the presidential election.

Like Obama, Macron is also cerebral and aloof. He has not spent much time trying to build up his party, which does not have a strong presence in many electoral districts. Macron would rather focus on policy matters than the grubby business of wooing voters and cutting deals in Parliament.

In a sharp contrast with Obama, Macron worked as an investment banker, and as president, he has pursued pro-business policies. This has caused many French voters to regard him with suspicion, and his opponents have labelled him “the president of the rich”.

In fact, Macron’s policies have worked. He cut corporate taxes and liberalized France’s Byzantine labor laws, which stimulated economic growth. The French unemployment rate has fallen to 7.1% from 9% in 2017, when Macron was elected president. Although that rate is high by U.S. standards, it represents real progress in France.

But French voters, like their American counterparts, are focusing on inflation, which is also high in France, rather than the relatively good job trends. (Joe Biden must sympathize with Macron on that point.)

Macron’s unforced errors

Macron is also suffering from some self-inflicted wounds. He declined to campaign until the very last days of last week’s election and refused to debate the other candidates — even though he excels at debating. Instead, Macron presented himself as a senior statesman above the fray, as he spent countless hours with Putin trying to negotiate a peace deal for Ukraine.

For a while, the French were impressed by Macron’s high-profile talks with Putin, but then they became resentful. As in the U.S., and any other country, the French care more about domestic issues than about foreign affairs. They wanted their President to pay attention to their complaints about the high cost of living, crime and a sense of national decline.

Macron also announced that he wanted to extend the retirement age to 65, which was an odd move in the middle of an election. That policy change would please the business community, but Macron already has their support.

And although he is right on the merits, his proposal is bound to anger trade unions and many voters. For a candidate labelled “president of the rich”, this was not an astute maneuver. Macron compounded his error by not emphasizing that he planned to institute the change over several years.

Le Pen’s core message: bashing immigrants

This will be Marine Le Pen’s third presidential race, and she has learned from past mistakes. Unlike Macron, she has waged a vigorous campaign and she has focused on voters’ pocket-book concerns, such as inflation.

Le Pen has toned down the anti-immigrant rhetoric of her party, which is its core platform, while still appealing to many French voters’ deep-seated fears about the changing demographic landscape in France.

Unfortunately, this is fertile ground for politicians in France. The country has encountered serious problems trying to assimilate the waves of Arab Muslims who immigrated from North Africa over the last four decades. An estimated 10% of the overall population is Muslim. Although many Muslims have integrated well into French society — -Muslim women have served as Cabinet ministers — -large numbers have not. For their part, many French Muslims complain that they want to join mainstream society, but they encounter discrimination when they apply to get jobs or enter college.

Moderate French voters have been understandably troubled by the rise of Muslim inner-city communities plagued by poverty and crime. There are widespread fears, justified or not, that many Muslims do not share key French values such as the separation of church/mosque and state or the equality of the sexes. These fears have been amplified by some vicious murders perpetrated by radicalized Muslim men.

“The Great Replacement”

Some members on the French ultra-right have been pushing a racist conspiracy theory, which postulates that France is in danger of a “great replacement”. The theory is that cabals within the political elite are deliberately trying to replace white, French Christians with dark Muslim immigrants. No major politician had dared to talk about this idea — until this election.

Zemmour and Valerie Pecresse, a supposedly moderate Republican candidate, railed about the “great replacement”. However, Le Pen has not used that term in her campaign.

Instead, Le Pen uses code words, saying that she would ban Muslim women from wearing head scarves in public. Her rationale is that such a step is necessary to maintain the separation of mosque and state, but that is ludicrous. Her followers know what Le Pen is really saying. Le Pen has made it clear that she wants to limit immigration sharply.

Le Pen is rabidly pro-Putin and anti-NATO

Similarly, Le Pen has abandoned her previous demand that France leave the European Union and abandon the Euro, which were very unpopular positions. However, Le Pen remains adamantly opposed to the EU, although she does not talk about it. If elected, she might try to do an informal “Frexit”, which would drastically weaken the EU.

Le Pen is also an ardent fan of Vladimir Putin and his acolyte, President Viktor Orban of Hungary. Le Pen admires their “defense” of Christian values and their opposition to “foreign” (i.e., Muslim) cultures. She has applauded Orban’s harsh measures to restrict immigration into Hungary.

Apparently, Le Pen is not troubled by Putin and Orban’s hatred of liberal democracy, their destruction of a free press and their rigging of elections. She also turns a blind eye to their rampant corruption and, in Putin’s case, his history of killing political opponents. Instead, Le Pen has cultivated close ties with both leaders. Her party has taken loans from Russian and Hungarian banks, to help finance its election campaigns.

This is not to say that if elected, Le Pen would adopt their authoritarian techniques of staying in power. But she has cozied up to some very unsavory characters, and it is fair to ask how committed she is to democratic norms.

So the French have a very important choice to make on April 24. What will it be?

The future of NATO and the European Union could ride on their decision.

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A Wall Street Democrat. Security analyst (financial institutions), former lawyer and banker.

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Ryan O'Connell

Ryan O'Connell

A Wall Street Democrat. Security analyst (financial institutions), former lawyer and banker.

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