Putin’s war blows up French elections
PARIS – Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has had a powerful impact on the French presidential campaign.
Before the Russian invasion, there were three Putin supporters among the top candidates: far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour.
While Le Pen proudly held photo ops with Putin (in 2017), endorsed his annexation of Crimea, and chaired a party that received loans from Russian banks, Zemmour expressed admiration for Putin, whom he described as a “patriot”. .”
And Mélenchon, for his part, has long advocated a French exit from NATO, reflecting his anti-Americanism and his affinity with the Latin American left of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. All three candidates asserted with confidence that Putin would not invade Ukraine.
Although Putin has taken all three candidates by surprise, Zemmour has been the only one to pay a political price so far. Le Pen immediately denounced the invasion and redirected his campaign to focus on pocket issues like the sudden spike in energy prices.
Mélenchon’s answer is more confused: while hailing the heroism of the Ukrainians, he is reluctant to send them arms. As with Le Pen, his campaign is primarily focused on domestic social issues, and he has avoided discussing the war as much as possible.
By contrast, Zemmour’s entire campaign consisted of avoiding immigrants, which made it difficult to adapt at the start of the war.
He expressed reservations about welcoming Ukrainian refugees, and without anything specific to say about rising energy prices, his candidacy became increasingly irrelevant.
He is now far behind Le Pen, whom he previously hoped to challenge for pre-eminence on the far right.
In the home stretch of the campaign, the top three contenders are incumbent President Emmanuel Macron with around 27%, followed by Le Pen and Mélenchon with around 23% and 16%, respectively.
One of the most obvious effects of the war is that the traditional right-wing Republican candidate, Valérie Pécresse, was effectively left out of the race.
In addition to mismanaging his campaign, his candidacy was hit hard by a shift in support for Macron, who not only reaped the political benefits of the Ukraine war but also co-opted some of Pécresse’s policy proposals.
Pécresse reacted angrily to his change of fortune, accusing Macron of “counterfeiting” his programme. But the problem for the Republican right is not just that Macron is getting rid of some Pécresse supporters.
It is that he has systematically adopted his basic positions, in particular retirement at 65, work requirements for social recipients and a reduction in inheritance tax.
This amounts to a full-scale takeover of the French centre-right. If Macron is re-elected, he will chair a formidable big-tent party, and Republicans will be left with crumbs, caught between a resurgent far-right and a ruling party intent on devouring them.
Macron’s objective is clear. He does not want to suffer the same fate as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whose seven-year presidency left no trace in French political life.
Like Charles de Gaulle after his return to power in 1958, Macron wants to rebuild the right from scratch.
The calculation is simple. In total, the French right holds around 75% of the electorate – including supporters of Macron’s own party, The Republic on the Move.
Within this large cohort, there is room for two major forces: the far right, which accounts for 30-35% of the electorate, and a united front comprising the rest of conservative voters.
With Macron, this latter bloc could rule France for long enough, echoing the legacy of Gaullism and its multiple reincarnations after de Gaulle’s death.
Provided that the extreme right seizes the opportunity, it could recompose itself and become a powerful bloc capable of taking power one day.
Just as de Gaulle forced the socialist and communist left under François Mitterrand, Macron’s game for traditional conservatives could produce a consolidation of forces on his right. The extreme right has only to position itself as the only alternative to the new Gaullist power.
As for the left, it seems to have difficulty in contesting this reality. Regardless of its moral authority on ecological or social justice issues, the left is playing a zero-sum game from a position of weakness, winning the support of around 25% of the electorate. The war in Ukraine did not help either.
The left is divided on the response and the role of Europe, France and NATO in it. Greens candidate Yannick Jadot and Socialist candidate Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo have accused Mélenchon of supporting autocrats, but with little effect on his relative popularity.
Behind the Ukrainian dividing line, two visions clash on how to reconstitute the French left. The first is to match far-right radicalism, the rise of which seems to reflect the demands of an electorate that feels betrayed by the mainstream.
The second asserts that the left has become repulsive to most of society precisely because it has lost its moderate elements.
To return to power, he must seduce voters interested in subjects such as ecology but wary of radicalism. In fact, both views are true; the problem of the left is the absence of anyone capable of producing the necessary synthesis.
Thanks to Putin, it is now almost certain that Macron will face Le Pen in the second round, as he did in 2017.
Polls predict Macron will win, but by a much tighter margin than five years ago. Some polls suggest Le Pen could garner as much as 47% of the vote in the second round – an unprecedented level of support for a far-right French candidate.
Rising fuel prices bolstered Le Pen’s candidacy. Without any commitment from Macron to fiscal prudence, she can promise drastic cuts in fuel taxes.
Putin’s war reshaped the French presidential race. Even if the result seems clear, it does not seem less clear that the collateral effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are likely to complicate politics elsewhere in Europe as well.
Daniel Cohen, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Paris School of Economics, is the author, quite recently, of The Inglourious Years: The Collapse of the Industrial Order and the Rise of the Digital Society (Princeton University Press, 2021).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.