Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Francois Hollande at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, November 26, 2015.
Alexander Zemlianichenko / Reuters

The United States is not the only Western country in which Russia is featuring prominently in electoral politics. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia is also a hot topic in the French presidential campaign. In the lead up to the election in spring 2017, nearly all of the opposition parties—whether on the right, far right, or far left—have bemoaned the degradation of ties with Russia under the government of President François Hollande, arguing that it breaks with France’s tradition of diplomatic engagement and political dialogue with Moscow and that it is detrimental to French economic interests. Some politicians from these parties have also expressed, on international issues such as Ukraine or Syria, views sympathetic to the Kremlin.

The pro-Russian stances of France’s fringe parties do not really come as a surprise: populists in the United States and Europe, from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to British politician Nigel Farage or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have voiced their admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The evolution of France’s main conservative party, the Republicans, which is currently leading the presidential race, is more puzzling, however. Some of its key leaders, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who in the late 2000s were seen as Atlanticists, now appear more sympathetic to Moscow’s positions than they were before. And this evolution comes at a time when diplomatic relations between Europe and Russia have deteriorated considerably over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Is it simply electoral posturing and opposition politics, or does it reveal a more profound shift? In any case,the Kremlin has happily fueled the fire through public declarations, sometimes implicitly taking up some of the arguments of France’s right.

The center-left government of Hollande, however, has started to fight back.

It had adopted a firm stance against Russia’s violation of international norms in Ukraine, notably bolstering the EU sanction regime and canceling the delivery of its Mistral warship to Russia while refraining from overly confrontational interactions with Moscow. But the tone between the two countries has significantly ratcheted up over the last few weeks, principally around the heavy bombings by Syrian and Russian air forces over Aleppo, which Paris sees as not only a moral but also a security issue since the bombings risk fueling radicalization and in turn increase the terrorist threat on its own territory.

In early October, after Moscow vetoed a French-sponsored UN resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Syria, the French condemned Russia for intensifying its bombing campaign, saying that it amounted to a “war crime” that merited prosecution by the International Criminal Court. In a rather strange setting—an on-the-go interview for a secondary entertainment television channel—Hollande questioned whether he should receive his Russian counterpart, who was planning to visit Paris on October 19 to inaugurate a Russian cultural center on the bank of the Seine. He said that he had found himself “wondering” whether there was any “usefulness or necessity” in receiving Putin and whether a meeting would have any chance of “stopping him from providing support to the [Bashar al-] Assad regime in bombing the civilian populations of Aleppo.” In the end, the Élysée signaled to the Kremlin that their interaction would be strictly limited to a working discussion on Syria and that Hollande would not attend the inauguration event. Putin then abruptly canceled his trip.

His decision, although brash, had probably less to do with the clash over Syria than with Hollande’s refusal to attend the inauguration ceremony. There was symbolic value in the inauguration for the Kremlin—it would have been spun to its domestic audience as evidence that Russia is not isolated on the European scene—and without the French president’s participation, there was no point in going. In light of where the French opposition parties stand on Russia, there was also the chance that in suddenly canceling his visit, Putin would make Hollande look weak: after all, Putin’s decision was announced not following Paris’ accusations of war crimes but the day after the airing of Hollande’s hesitative interview.

Opposition leaders were quick to present the situation in this light and condemn Hollande. Sarkozy denounced what he called Hollande’s “irresponsible” attitude and “Cold War strategies” toward Russia, arguing that the canceled meeting was a “bad thing” and that “more dialogue” was needed with Moscow. Former Prime Minister François Fillon, for his part, accused Hollande of “undermining the credibility of French foreign policy” and asserted that the French president had been “ridiculed” by Putin.

These reactions amount to more than just preelectoral sniping or individual targeting. They are the symptoms of profound divergences in the French political class. For a long time, a steady consensus has prevailed on foreign policy matters, but Russia has become an exception. Even more than the Ukraine crisis, the recent flare-up over Syria has brought these divisions to the fore and made Franco-Russian relations a hot topic in the presidential race.      

On the far right, the ideological, institutional, and financial links between Russia and the National Front, France’s far-right populist party, are real and have received a lot of press. Even so, such ties have not affected French foreign policy, since the National Front remains outside of decision-making structures. Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader, will probably reach the second round of the presidential elections next spring, but she is unlikely to win. Instead, especially if the unpopular Hollande runs for the Socialist Party, the next French president is likely to come from the ranks of the Republicans, which held its first primary election debate on October 13. 

Unlike the far right, the Republicans do not have links or comparable affinities with the Putin regime. Nevertheless, the party has advocated a different diplomatic course on Russia. The Republicans have called for the lifting of sanctions on Russia imposed by the EU following the Ukraine crisis and, as such, sponsored and supported a nonbinding parliamentary resolution that was adopted last April. Republican politicians have been also regularly advocating greater engagement and deeper cooperation with Russia, notably over the conflict in Syria.   

But some of the leading contenders in the Republican primaries have gone even further. Respectively ranking second and third according to the latest polls, Sarkozy implicitly endorsed the annexation of Crimea and Fillon made rapprochement with Russia one of the centerpieces of his foreign policy proposals. In contrast, the front-runner, Alain Juppé, has adopted a line closer to that of Hollande, even though being on the same side of the current government is not necessarily an advantage in the primaries.

Overall, the admiration for strong leaders, the attachment to traditional values, and, for some, anti-Americanism or ties to the business sector often account for the positions of Republican politicians. According to a poll from 2014, right-wing voters tend to have a more positive view of Putin (25 percent) than left-wing voters (four percent).

Following the diplomatic standoff over Syria, Putin probably saw an opportunity to weigh in. The day after announcing the cancellation of his visit, he criticized the French government by stating that it was “not serious” for a country to “declare itself a great power” while its policies were not fully “independent.” Such rhetoric seems designed to strike a chord with critics in the French opposition who denounce their country’s stances on Ukraine or Syria as being too closely aligned to those of the United States. In the same statement, Putin praised his “good relations with the French people and the French business community,” seemingly talking over the heads of French political and diplomatic elites. 

The point in highlighting these interferences is not to call for permanent indignation (meddling in other countries’ internal affairs is not totally uncommon in international politics) or to feed the kind of paranoia that sees the Russian president’s hand behind every political development in Europe (Hollande’s apparent weakness in domestic politics is hardly something that can be blamed entirely on Putin). It is, rather, to assess whether such tactics, if pursued, may work and whether France might substantially change its course on Russia after the elections.

As things stand today, Juppé still has the greatest chance of winning the presidency next year, and his stances on Russia have been close to the current diplomatic line. A Juppé presidency would most probably mean continuity in France’s Russia policies. If Sarkozy or Fillon wins, a change of official rhetoric on Russia is possible, although it may not go so far as to replicate their campaign platforms. Sarkozy had, after all, claimed during the 2007 campaign that he would personally refuse to shake Putin’s hand because of his record on human rights, before adopting a markedly different stance once in office.

What is unlikely is a radical change of policy. Any new president would have to work within the prevailing European and societal contexts in which policies are set. French foreign policy interests are deeply anchored in the EU and NATO, and although Paris will seek to shape the consensus in these organizations, it is unlikely to radically go against it. In light of this, Germany’s direction after the legislative elections next year will be an important variable. Similarly, it is doubtful that the critical attitude of the French public at large and mainstream media toward the Russian president and his policies can be quickly overturned: 81 percent of the French believe that their country should maintain good relations with Moscow, but 85 percent have a negative view of Putin and 75 percent think that he is “wrong to support Bashar al-Assad.” At a time when Aleppo is making headlines, Hollande is probably relieved to have skipped the inauguration photo op with Putin.    

Paris will probably continue to balance different priorities. On Ukraine, it hopes that the EU economic sanctions will lead Moscow to withdraw its support to the separatists in the east and bring a resolution to the conflict. But France also hopes that these sanctions can be lifted once this is achieved. It also hopes that Kiev will do more to implement reforms and fulfill the terms of the Minsk cease-fire agreements. On Syria, France remains at odds with Russia but nonetheless needs to cooperate with it on counterterrorism, notably relating to French nationals fighting in Syria. Paris wants the West to pressure Russia to end its bombings over Aleppo but also wishes to keep the dialogue open on the political transition in Syria. In other words, the recent diplomatic spat between Paris and Moscow is unlikely to dramatically tilt France’s Russia policies one way or the other.

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  • DAVID CADIER is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and an Associate at the London School of Economics’ IDEAS. He recently co-edited Russia’s Foreign Policy: Ideas, Domestic Politics and External Relations (Palgrave, 2015).
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