Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed world affairs to the forefront of France’s presidential race, upending a campaign in which three of the five leading candidates are staunch critics of the US-led transatlantic alliance.
As French President Emmanuel Macron returned from marathon talks with his Russian counterpart in Moscow on February 9, his closest challenger in the race for the Élysée Palace offered her take on what she described as a “frosty” reception at the Kremlin.
“Macron showed up in Moscow not as the French president, but rather as a little courier for NATO” and was duly treated as such, Marine Le Pen told RTL radio.
Just days earlier, the leader of the far-right National Rally party had repeated her pledge to pull France out of NATO’s integrated command. Addressing her first campaign rally, she stressed that “France must not be dragged into other people’s conflicts”.
As she spoke, a glossy eight-page leaflet touting Le Pen’s leadership credentials was distributed to the audience. It featured pictures of her posing with a host of foreign dignitaries, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin – whom she visited at the Kremlin during her previous presidential run, in 2017.
Weeks later, the picture has not aged well. With Ukraine in the throes of Europe’s biggest military invasion since World War II, it has come back to haunt Le Pen’s campaign, prompting some party officials to send the brochures – of which more than 1.2 million copies have been printed – to the shredder.
‘Sovereignists’ under fire
The catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine has torn up a lot more than Le Pen’s leaflets. It has rewritten the entire script of France’s presidential contest, thrusting international affairs – typically a sideshow during campaigns – into the limelight with just over a month to go before the April 10 first round.
The war has presented France’s mainstream parties – many of whose candidates are struggling in polls – with a fresh opportunity to round on some of their more radical rivals and accuse them of cosying up to Putin while wrongly vilifying NATO.
Criticism has focused on a trio of presidential hopefuls – Le Pen, her far-right rival Éric Zemmour and leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon – who are polling in second, third and fifth place, respectively, and are frequently lumped together for their “sovereignist” rhetoric despite being at odds on many issues.
The two far-right leaders have spoken admiringly of the Russian leader’s unsparingly nationalist approach, in Zemmour’s case even longing for a “French Putin”. Le Pen has previously laughed off suggestions that Putin posed a threat to Europe, saying that NATO had outlived its usefulness.
While Mélenchon has no such affinity with the strongman in the Kremlin, he has in the past joined his rivals in belittling the threat from Moscow even as he blamed NATO for stirring trouble.
During heated exchanges in parliament on Tuesday, Damien Abad, the head of the mainstream conservative Les Républicains delegation at the National Assembly, accused the trio of harbouring an “unhealthy fascination” with Putin – which he said “disqualified” them from France’s highest office.
Christophe Lagarde, a prominent centrist lawmaker, directed his ire at Zemmour, blasting his “indecent” call for Ukrainian refugees to stay in Poland rather than head to France. He added: “I suggest he goes to Kyiv and asks local residents what they think of the freedom and security offered by NATO’s protection.”
As lawmakers sparred in parliament, French daily Le Monde published an unusually scathing column blasting the “champions of French autonomy (…) who fell right into Putin’s trap”.
“Rarely has a foreign policy event left candidates so exposed, revealing their deceptions,” wrote the newspaper’s editorialist Françoise Fressoz, ridiculing those who attempted to claim the mantle of General Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime hero and postwar leader, even as they preached that France should adopt “non-aligned” status.
“They cast themselves as Gaullists,” she said. “Instead, all they did was prove their weakness before a leader armed with nuclear weapons and who knows no bounds.”
Putin’s crime, NATO’s fault
Martin Quencez, a security analyst and deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office, said the war in Ukraine has served as a tragic reminder of why the NATO alliance exists in the first place: to protect member states from a threat that is “very real”.
“In that respect, the war is particularly damning for those candidates who claimed the threat was non-existent,” he told FRANCE 24.
“Their claims rested on two main arguments: one, that the Russian threat was exaggerated or even invented by US intelligence; the other, that Russia’s hostility was merely a consequence of aggression by NATO and the US,” Quencez added. “Putin’s war has effectively killed off both.”
Since the start of the war, France’s sovereignist candidates have rushed to distance themselves from the Kremlin – with Le Pen claiming the Russian leader is “no longer the Putin” whose support she sought in 2017. All three have categorically condemned Russia’s invasion. However, they have largely stuck to the same narrative regarding the underlying causes of the conflict.
Speaking to the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, Zemmour said the war was a consequence of the West’s “obstinate refusal to take into account Russia’s security concerns”. Putin is the “guilty party”, he told RTL radio the next day, but “it is NATO’s expansionism that is responsible for the war”.
The far-right pundit – who also wants to pull France out of NATO’s integrated military command, as De Gaulle did in 1966 – suggested appointing Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister, as a French mediator to broker peace between Moscow and Kyiv. That suggestion was promptly rebuffed by Védrine himself, who described Zemmour’s anti-NATO platform as “senseless, stupid, and coming at the worst possible time”.
“Even De Gaulle never intended to quit the alliance,” the former minister told Le Monde. “France cannot isolate itself from the United States and its European partners.”
Misunderstanding De Gaulle
According to Quencez, French politicians’ frequent calls to quit NATO rest largely on a misunderstanding of De Gaulle’s momentous decision in 1966, when he withdrew France from the alliance’s integrated command structure but did not quit the alliance itself.
“One reading of De Gaulle’s move has been to portray NATO as a symbol of France’s alignment with American interests and policy,” he said. “According to this interpretation, De Gaulle’s exit has come to embody France’s determination to define its own interests independently of Washington.”
However, Quencez added, “De Gaulle never questioned the fact that France was firmly on one side during the Cold War. During the great standoffs of his presidency, such as the Cuban missile crisis or the construction of the Berlin Wall, he sided resolutely with the West and condemned the Soviets. To think that a Gaullist policy would mean to be non-aligned, in the Cold War sense, is a historical mistake.”
While France’s NATO-sceptic candidates are under pressure to distance themselves from Russia, Quencez said their criticism of the US-led alliance is set to endure because it is “part of a political tradition in France”.
“Hostility towards NATO is only a symptom of a broader worldview according to which the US is a threat to French sovereignty,” he explained. “French geostrategic thought is informed, in part, by past crises in which Paris and Washington have been at odds,” he added, citing the Suez Crisis of 1956, in which the US forced Europe’s declining imperial powers – Britain and France – into a humiliating climbdown.
“The British and French drew opposing lessons from Suez,” said Quencez. “The former decided they should never again be at odds with the US, whereas the French decided they must develop an autonomous capacity in order to escape US diktats.”
Stuck in the Cold War?
France’s autonomous nuclear capacity explains in part why the French are traditionally more critical of NATO than their European peers. Unlike their continental neighbours, the French have their own deterrence. They are also further away from Russian borders than most other European nations.
According to Mélenchon, the leader of the France insoumise (France Unbowed) party, NATO’s decision to move ever closer to Russia’s borders since the end of the Cold War is the root cause of the multiple crises unfolding in the post-Soviet world. His critique of NATO is premised on what he sees as a Western failure to move on from Cold War-era thinking.
As the left-wing daily Libération wrote last month, Mélenchon’s “aversion to NATO is rooted in his distrust of the US, which he views as the principal threat to world peace in so far as it is a declining hegemon” – and therefore obsessed with keeping challengers at bay.
In a chapter devoted to the subject of “Peace”, his policy platform describes the transatlantic alliance as “an instrument to make countries subservient to the United States”, calling NATO an “archaic” institution that “should have been dissolved at the end of the Cold War”. “Instead, it has only extended its reach with nefarious consequences for peace and our security.”
Le Président s’est placé dans une situation qui fait baisser la crédibilité de la France. Les Français doivent être non-alignés. Les Russes ne doivent pas passer la frontière de l’Ukraine, les Américains ne doivent pas annexer l’#Ukraine dans l’#OTAN. #DimPol pic.twitter.com/8d98r8a1h9
— Jean-Luc Mélenchon (@JLMelenchon) February 20, 2022
Only a week before the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Mélenchon pleaded for France’s “non-alignment” in the Ukrainian standoff, writing on Twitter: “The Russians must not cross Ukraine’s borders, which must be respected, and the Americans must not annex Ukraine into NATO.”
Mélenchon, who has called for Ukraine to be declared a “neutral state”, appears unswayed by the fact that European nations have been eager to join NATO, seeking its protection from the more salient threat of Russian aggression. He has stuck to this line of thinking even as Russian troops move deeper into Ukraine, rejecting talk of a volte-face.
“Our condemnation of Russia’s military intervention does not mean we have shifted our stance, on the contrary,” he told reporters at the weekend during a trip to the French Pacific island of La Réunion. “I have always said that we cannot continue to humiliate Russia by pushing NATO ever closer to its borders. It’s a danger they’ll never accept.”
Source: France 24