On Sunday, the people of France will elect their next president. If they make the wrong choice, they could weaken the European Union, deliver a deadly blow to NATO, and provide succor to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
French President Emmanuel Macron won the first round of the election with 27.8 percent of the vote. His extreme-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, received 23.1 percent. Since then, Macron has received support from many notables on the right and the left, including his predecessors former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, of Les Républicains, a conservative party, and François Hollande, of the moderate-left Socialist Party. One might think that should make for an easy victory for Macron in the final election.
But polls in France tell another story. Without a tie to a major party on the right or left, Macron has undergone five years of political attacks from both sides but especially from two parties on the left: La France Insoumise (LFI), whose name translates to France Unbowed, and the Greens. Combined, the two won more votes than Le Pen and slightly fewer than Macron. Even if party leaders recommend Macron or, at least, do not support Le Pen, surveys suggest party members may not follow their lead. On the contrary, it seems that voters aligned with LFI and the Greens may prefer to stay neutral by, perhaps, not voting at all. Seen in that light, Macron’s lead looks shaky. A surprise on election day is entirely possible.
If Marine Le Pen is elected as president of France, it will create a shock that would shake the world.
The links between Le Pen and Putin are worrying. Five years ago, Putin officially received her in Moscow and declared his support. At the time, Le Pen’s party, which was then called National Front but is now known as National Rally, took a loan from a Russian bank, the First Czech-Russian Bank. Later, the debt was resold to Aviazapchast, a firm run by former Russian military personnel. That debt seems to remain unpaid, and Le Pen’s financial ties to Russia continue. In addition, the political links are evident, with Le Pen regularly visiting Putin in Russia. In February 2022, one of Le Pen’s campaign posts showed her happily smiling with Putin, though the post disappeared after Russia invaded Ukraine. In addition to the Russian loan, Le Pen took one out from a Hungarian bank owned by acquaintances of another Putin friend, Viktor Orban, the autocratic Hungarian president.
Five years ago, Le Pen advocated for France to quit NATO and the European Union, a position that may have doomed her first race against Macron. Today, Le Pen insists that she does not want to leave NATO or the EU.
Yet Le Pen does want to leave NATO’s Integrated Command — meaning that France’s forces, in particular its nuclear weapons, would no longer be under NATO’s authority. At a recent press conference on international affairs, Le Pen declared that such a decision would restore France’s “diplomatic and military independence,” by which she means from the United States. To add a sheen of legitimacy to her position, Le Pen referred to a similar decision that then-French president Charles de Gaulle made in 1966, when there was a conflict with the Johnson administration over the autonomy of the French nuclear arsenal and the presence of American bases in France. But de Gaulle was always clear about the importance of France’s alliance with the United States and never considered a similar agreement with the USSR. Which makes it all the more glaring that Le Pen declared recently that she would push for an alliance with Putin’s Russia. That would be a blow for France’s allies and the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Although Le Pen no longer proposes to leave the European Union, she intends to circumvent the EU’s rules. Her first act as president, she says, would be to organize a referendum for the French people (bypassing the Parliament and in violation of the French Constitution), asking them whether French law should be superior to EU legislation. Such a referendum would also breach EU treaties. Nevertheless, such promises appeal to nationalist voters who believe that France, not Europe, should have the ultimate say in the lives of French people and the laws that govern them.
Under Le Pen’s leadership, foreign people, including European citizens, would no longer receive the same social benefits as French citizens. Le Pen would also reestablish control over France’s borders, putting an end to the free movement of people, goods, and services mandated by the EU. Some predict the implosion of the EU if this happens.
Le Pen would also refuse to comply with EU sanctions against Russia, at least those concerning energy, “because it is so bad for French consumers,” she has said. And when President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a war criminal, Le Pen described his remark as “irresponsible.” She insisted that France’s position must be more balanced between the US and Russia.
Le Pen’s plans in foreign affairs warrant scrutiny. Weakening France’s relationship with the United States and provoking the implosion of the European Union is essentially Putin’s dream. At a time when the European Union has shown unity in the face of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a Le Pen victory has the potential to fragment Europe, destabilize the West, and force a redrawing of the map of Western alliances.
Alain Lefebvre, a former French diplomat, is an international consultant and the author of ”Macron Unveiled: The Prototype for a New Generation of World Leaders.” On Wednesday, April 27, he will discuss the outcome of the French election via Zoom at the French Cultural Center of Boston.