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Putin’s long shadow hangs over an unpredictable election in France

The author is editor-in-chief and columnist at Le Monde

It should be child’s play for Emmanuel Macron.

Since 1965, when the French began electing their head of state by popular vote, no incumbent president had been re-elected while retaining a majority in parliament. François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac each won a second term, but were curtailed by an opposition government. Two weeks ago, Macron had high hopes that he would be the first to meet this challenge, with the involuntary help of an unlikely ally: Vladimir Putin.

The threat of an invasion of Ukraine, and then the war itself, propelled the French president into a frantic global diplomatic effort. While the other 11 candidates struggled in the two rounds of the presidential election to divert voters’ attention from the tragic news in Eastern Europe, Macron, ever the statesman, spent his time with his G7 and NATO allies. The media were duly briefed on his talks with Moscow and Kyiv. Campaigning was not necessary for him. The only campaign that voters seemed to care about was Putin’s. The “rally the flag” effect worked wonders, and Macron’s poll ratings rose.

That was two weeks ago. As gasoline and food prices rose steadily, voters began to realize that Putin’s war in Ukraine was not only a humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe, but would also impact their daily lives in France. One candidate understood this better than anyone else: far-right politician Marine Le Pen.

The war has given Le Pen a silver bullet: the cost of living issue. She has cleverly refocused her campaign, presenting herself as the protector of those most affected by price hikes. Sanctions against Russia, she argues, should not harm the French people. She has promised to scrap sales tax on a basket of staples and scrap petrol hikes. The cost of living soon became the number one concern in voters’ minds. Le Pen’s poll numbers rose. Macron’s went under.

This is Le Pen’s third presidential campaign, and at 53, she’s learned her lesson. In 2017, she lost to Macron 66-34 as a staunch anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic supporter of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Five years later, she’s softened her image, avoiding shouting, loving kittens and the euro, boasting “the strongest democratic credibility” and not mentioning immigrants as often. Given the circumstances, she finds it difficult not to mention Putin at all, but has managed to shroud her past sympathies for the Russian leader, whom she visited in the Kremlin in 2017.

Le Pen’s party is still repaying a loan she got from a bank in Moscow to fund her 2017 election campaign, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have left her in deep embarrassment. But her far-right rival, Eric Zemmour, another Putinophile, was far less adept at handling the issue; he stood his ground against Putin, misjudged public sentiment and declared that refugees from Ukraine were not welcome. As such, he served as an unexpected lightning rod for Le Pen. When he plummeted in the polls, she rose.

Macron, realizing that the only real energy in this lackluster campaign now rests with Le Pen, has belatedly entered the fray. His team was desperately waiting for this move, but it’s already late in the game. He’s lost momentum.

On Friday, two days before the first round this Sunday, the gap between Macron and Le Pen had narrowed to within the margin of error (26.5 percent to 23 percent). As the atrocities in Bucha put the war in Ukraine back at the center of national conversations, the Putin factor in the French election campaign took another turn. Barring a surprise rise in left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, now third in opinion polls, Le Pen will again face Macron in the runoff. The elephant in the room during these two weeks will be the Russian leader.

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The French President has already begun targeting Le Pen’s admiration for the man in the Kremlin; his campaign promotes a video clip of an election poster of her that, when torn, reveals Putin’s face underneath. Le Pen, meanwhile, is busy justifying her program calling for a “security alliance” with Russia and the end of joint defense projects with Germany. “That was before the war,” she replied in a television interview this week when asked about cooperation with Russia. But sure, “in a few years,” she said, Russia must be reconnected to Europe to prevent it falling into China’s arms — “just like Mr. Macron wanted.”

It’s all music to the Kremlin’s ears. After Russia interfered in the 2017 US presidential campaign that put Donald Trump in the White House, it set its sights on the French presidential election. Macron’s campaign email accounts were hacked and tens of thousands of messages were leaked.

Five years later, Putin’s shadow looms large over the French political scene, and the stakes are even higher. Le Pen’s election after Viktor Orban’s re-election in Hungary would give the Russian leader a trophy at least as valuable as a military victory in Donbass. His dream of destabilizing Europe would finally come true. France still has two weeks to wake up, debate the price of democracy and prove him wrong.

https://www.ft.com/content/4a20aa5e-11c1-4361-a750-8bdf6e118d9c Putin’s long shadow hangs over an unpredictable election in France

Adam Bradshaw

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