How Russia’s war on Ukraine is shaping the French presidential race

Geopolitics is at the centre of France’s presidential campaign like never before. There are stark differences between the candidates’ attitudes towards Russia.

Presidential candidates attend a briefing on the war in Ukraine led by French Prime Minister Jean Castex at the Hotel Matignon in Paris, France on February 28, 2022. Photo by Stephane Lemouton/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM
Presidential candidates attend a briefing on the war in Ukraine led by French Prime Minister Jean Castex at the Hotel Matignon in Paris, France on February 28, 2022
©

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February shifted the tone of the French presidential race: all candidates stopped to comment on the news of an all-out war in Europe. France’s approach to Russia had always been a big part of the campaign – which, unlike previous campaigns, has prioritised foreign policy, creating a clear divide between candidates. After the escalating conflict forced all candidates to clarify their positions, they now unanimously condemn the invasion – albeit while disagreeing on who is responsible for it. Their initial declarations on the issue indicate how the debate may evolve in the coming weeks.

Military intervention in UkraineInternational organisation that should lead cooperation on the crisisWithdrawal from NATO’s integrated commandArms deliveries to Ukraine
Nathalie ArthaudNo//No
Anne HidalgoNoEU/NATONoYes
Yannick JadotNoEUNoYes
Jean Lassalle/UNYes/
Marine Le PenNoUNYesNo
Emmanuel MacronNoEU/NATONoYes
Jean-Luc MélenchonNoOSCEYesNo
Valérie PécresseNoUNNoYes
Fabien Roussel//YesNo
Eric ZemmourNoUNYesNo

Nathalie Arthaud – Lutte ouvrière (far left)

Arthaud has condemned the invasion but said that the West has significant responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine. She has accused NATO, the United States, and Western powers generally of “surrounding Russia with military bases for 30 years”. She opposes economic sanctions on Russia and lethal military assistance for Ukraine.

Anne Hidalgo – Parti Socialiste (left)

Hidalgo, whose campaign seems to lack momentum, has tried to distance herself from the ambiguous attitudes towards Russian President Vladimir Putin of candidates such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen, and Eric Zemmour. She called for greater European unity and efforts to reinforce Europe’s defence capabilities. Since the early stages of the crisis in Ukraine, she has put energy sovereignty at the centre of the debate.

Hidalgo has firmly condemned the Russian invasion, calling it an “unjustified and criminal act”. Addressing a rally in Bordeaux on 26 February that she dedicated to Ukraine, Hidalgo advocated massive sanctions on Russia that would also hit Putin directly, Russia’s removal from the SWIFT financial messaging system, and arms deliveries to Ukraine – an initiative that, she said, should accompany the reinforcement of Common Security and Defence Policy and the French presence in NATO.

Yannick Jadot – Europe Ecologie Les Verts (greens)

Before the invasion, Jadot advocated sanctions on the “corrupted Russian oligarchy” and a halt to Nord Stream 2. After the invasion, he also called for sanctions on Putin, Russia’s removal from SWIFT, and arms deliveries to Ukraine. He argues that Putin is a dictator who is fighting not against NATO but against democracy.

Jean Lassalle – Résistons! (centre-right)

While tensions were rising on the Ukrainian border, Lassalle said that neither France nor Europe had enough influence on Putin to change his behaviour, and that the US was leading the Western response to the crisis. Lassalle has condemned the Russian attack, calling it “a violation of international law” and asking for immediate de-escalation. He has reiterated his views that NATO and the US are “subjecting the European continent”. He asks for swift action at the United Nations to reach a ceasefire.

Marine Le Pen – Rassemblement National (far right)

Le Pen’s party has long had a special connection to Russia and Putin’s regime: in 2017 it received a Russian loan for its presidential campaign (which it failed to repay) and she met the Russian president in Moscow. At that time, other French parties were experiencing hacks and other forms of interference from the Russian regime. As the crisis intensified, Le Pen initially parroted Kremlin propaganda. But she has since condemned the Russian invasion, calling for a UN meeting on the crisis and urging neighbours of Ukraine such as Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia to help stop the conflict. She opposes any French direct military intervention in Ukraine, asking French leaders to continue on the diplomatic path – despite having criticised President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic efforts in the weeks leading up to the invasion.

After the escalating conflict forced all candidates to clarify their positions, they now unanimously condemn the invasion – albeit while disagreeing on who is responsible for it

Emmanuel Macron – La République en Marche (center-right)

In recent weeks, Macron has continued his diplomatic efforts. He has consulted with his European partners in an attempt to reinforce European sovereignty, and has maintained diplomatic channels with Putin.

Since the invasion, the soon-to-be-announced candidate for re-election has capitalised on his international profile by strongly condemning Russian military attacks in Ukraine. He has also spoken with Putin at the request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky but, with the election approaching, will soon focus on domestic politics.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon – La France Insoumise (far left)

Mélenchon has long had an ambiguous position on Russia and its military interventions, notably in Syria in 2015. He has called for de-escalation of the crisis since early 2022 – but has also said that he understands why Russia would feel threatened by NATO moving closer to its border, and why this would result in an increase in the Russian military presence near Ukraine. While Mélenchon acknowledged that the invasion was entirely Russia’s responsibility, he warned against “annexing Ukraine into NATO”.

In a complete turnaround, Mélenchon condemned the invasion as a demonstration of “pure violence” and asked for France to call a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – in the hope that this would create the conditions for a ceasefire and the start of negotiations. He also claimed that there was a need to organise a conference on border security. Having long engaged in anti-American rhetoric, Mélenchon calls on France to adopt a position of non-alignment.

Valérie Pécresse – Les Républicains (right)

Since the beginning of the crisis, Pécresse has condemned Putin’s actions and supported “really strong sanctions” on Russia. After the invasion, she called for a meeting of the UN Security Council to ask for a ceasefire. She also said that the European Union should plan how to provide humanitarian aid and defence equipment to Ukraine (as it subsequently has done).

On 27 February, she supported Zemmour’s proposition to appoint former president Nicolas Sarkozy as a “peace emissary”, building on his role in the crisis around the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. (She did not credit the idea to Zemmour.)

Fabien Roussel – Parti Communiste Français (far left)

Roussel said that he wants a “diplomatic way out” of the conflict. He also proposed the seizure of Russian oligarchs’ houses in France as shelters for Ukrainian refugees. Roussel describes Putin as an “authoritarian, nationalist, the travel companion of the French far right” who should be treated with firmness. Roussel calls for a ceasefire in the conflict and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

Eric Zemmour – Reconquête (far right)

Zemmour has always been heavily pro-Russia. He claims that Russia is a more reliable ally than Germany, the United Kingdom, or the US. He says that he dreams of a “French Putin”. Zemmour denied that Russia would invade Ukraine – until it did so – and argued that Putin’s claims were “fully legitimate”, claiming that he would lift all sanctions on Russia if he was president. While Zemmour condemned the invasion on 24 February, he also said that Putin has had a normal reaction to decades of humiliation by the US and the West – and that, “while Putin was guilty, NATO is responsible”. He is now advocating a peace treaty that would halt NATO’s expansion to the east. Zemmour argues that, if Ukraine had agreed not to join NATO, this would have prevented the invasion. As discussed, he recently sent a public letter to Macron asking for former president Sarkozy to act as a peace emissary.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Authors

Programme Coordinator, ECFR Paris
ECFR Alumni · Programme and Office Assistant, ECFR Paris

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