Despite Ukraine, Being a Friend of Putin Isn't Electoral Poison
In France, Le Pen already has a playbook to win
On April 10, in the first round of voting in France's presidential election, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron edged far-right leader Marine Le Pen, leading by a margin of about 28 percent to 23 percent, with 97 percent of the votes counted. The two will face each other in a runoff vote on April 24.
Macron trounced Le Pen by over thirty points in the second round of presidential voting in 2017. This time, polls show Le Pen behind by just four to six points, or even narrowly edging Macron.
Le Pen's recent surge comes despite her history of backing Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Her party, Front Nationale, took a 9.4 million euro loan from an obscure Russian bank in 2014, which it is still paying back. She has voiced support for Putin's 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea. In her 2017 campaign, Le Pen met with Putin in the Kremlin. He relished the opportunity to meet with a presidential candidate from the West: he said that he was simply doing as foreign leaders do in meeting with candidates, and denied that he was meddling in the French election. When it was her turn to speak, she talked about fighting terrorism with Russia and ending sanctions, hitting on Kremlin talking points.
The groundswell of European support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky might have been the death knell for her. But she has been able to maneuver a moderate -- some would say wishy-washy -- stance on the Kremlin. She has said that the invasion “changed her opinion” of Putin and has condemned it. However, she has zeroed in on the high heating and petrol costs of sanctions to ordinary French. She came out against an embargo on Russian oil and gas. “Do we want to die? Economically, we would die!” she said at a recent debate. "We have to think of our people.”
Le Pen also benefited from the candidacy of far-right provocateur Eric Zemmour, who finished fourth with seven percent. He made her look reasonable by comparison. Zemmour said that he "prefers" that Ukrainian refugees stay in Poland, not France. He blamed NATO, which he wants to pull out of, for the war. On April 10, Zemmour called on his supporters to vote for Le Pen in the second round.
Already, 47 days into the war, there is precedent for how to win elections in Europe after having friendly relations with Putin. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sailed to a fourth term on March 31. Putin and Orban met in the Kremlin on February 1, where Orban called Russia's security demands "normal." After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Orban cast himself as a neutral arbiter between world powers and a protector of Hungarians, keeping Hungarian troops out of a violent war. He, too, opposed sanctions on Russian oil and gas, while going along with the rest of the European Union's sanctions regime for Russia.
Orban was helped by an election that was free but not fair. His party, Fidesz, rigged the electoral process in his favor and its near complete control of the media and advertising gave Fidesz a big lift. In addition, he changed the laws of the election to the benefit of Fidesz and allowed nonresidents to vote in Hungary using local addresses. "The 3 April parliamentary elections and referendum were well administered and professionally managed but marred by the absence of a level playing field," said the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, a regional international election monitor, which deployed over 200 personnel to observe the election. (It is unusual for the organization to deploy so many personnel to an EU member state.)
Le Pen can't rig the election like Orban did. But the playbook is there for her to win. She has moderated her past support for Putin; she has, like Orban, distinguished Ukrainian refugees from Muslim migrants and welcomed the former; and she has emphasized the pocketbook costs of sanctions. Meanwhile, Macron has called for a ban on Russian coal and oil, but not gas. He has been busy trying to negotiate a diplomatic solution between Russia and Ukraine, to no avail.
Should Le Pen win, she will become head of the Council of the European Union, of which France holds the rotating presidency until June. From that position, she could throw a wrench into the European Union's efforts to project a unified front against Russia. Other EU member states, nervous about high gas prices, could join her in opposing sanctions. Unlike Zemmour, she is unlikely to leave NATO, but should she win, she could soften existing sanctions and refuse Zelensky's plea for an embargo on oil and gas. Buckle up.
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