Putin’s Cheerleaders: How the War in Ukraine Jeopardizes France’s Populist Presidential Candidates
By Therese Mager, Research Institute Social Cohesion (FGZ)/ ReCentGlobe, Leipzig University –
As is the case throughout Europe, French politics have been turned upside-down by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Unlike most nations, however, France is mere weeks away from a general election. The onset of war has triggered a surge in the polls for sitting president Emmanuel Macron and left nearly a dozen rival candidates battling for media attention. Despite this, several candidates have found themselves in the limelight for exactly the wrong reason: their record of unflagging support for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Marine Le Pen, head of the Rassemblement National (known until 2018 as the Front National), has been cozying up to the Russian president for years, famously meeting with him in Moscow right before the French presidential elections of 2017. To the left of the political spectrum, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France insoumise, considered a populist in his own right, has consistently advocated a foreign policy favorable to Russian interests. And Eric Zemmour of Reconquête!, a more extreme-right figure than Le Pen and a newcomer to politics, was gratuitously praising Putin long before he announced his candidacy last fall. All three of these figures spent the tense weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine brushing off warnings of impending war, suggesting that NATO was threatening Russia, not the reverse.
Since the outbreak of the conflict, French media outlets and rival politicians have lost no time in dredging up damaging statements from the populist trio. Le Pen, who has professed that she “admires” Putin, has minimized the Russian leader’s suppression of civil liberties and his military adventurism; in 2021, she stated in an interview that “Ukraine belongs to the Russian sphere of influence.” Mélenchon has routinely defended or downplayed Russian military aggression, noting earlier this year that, as far as he is concerned, “Crimea is Russian.” Zemmour, who built his reputation as a political journalist and media pundit, has frequently praised the Russian president and explicitly defended his reading of Ukrainian history. In 2014, he declared that “Ukraine does not exist,” calling it a country “made up of odds and ends.”
A Steadfast Affinity
Why such unabashed support for the agenda of a de facto dictator? Despite the three populist figures’ political differences, much of their reasoning is the same. For one thing, they all desire a multipolar world order, one in which Russia could serve as a counterweight to the United States; by the same token, they want France to step out of the shadow of the U.S., beginning with its departure from NATO. (For similar reasons, they are highly skeptical of the EU.) From their point of view, Russia also serves as a defender of national sovereignty and non-interventionism—a belief which apparently was not shaken by Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.
Additional reasons differ according to the candidates’ positions on the political spectrum. On the far right, Le Pen and Zemmour have made no secret of their admiration for Putin for cultural reasons, seeing him as a strong leader and a defender of their idealized Christian Europe. In a political essay published in 2016, Zemmour described Putinas “the last resistance fighter against the politically correct hurricane which, originating in America, is destroying traditional structures—family, religion, fatherland.” Mélenchon, on the other hand, embodies an affinity for Russia carried over from the heyday of the French Communist Party. In favor of a non-aligned France, he has stated that NATO should not have been maintained following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that this was a sign of bad faith. With his focus squarely on criticizing American imperialism and militarism, Mélenchon has given global powers such as Russia and China a free pass.
For Marine Le Pen in particular, this affinity has translated into more than just words. Over the last decade, Le Pen and her surrogates have sought to build links wherever possible with Putin’s government, culminating in Le Pen’s high-profile visit to the Kremlin in 2017. More problematic still, with the help of a Kremlin-affiliated advisor, the Rassemblement National took out at least one loan (totaling 9.4 million euros) from a Russian bank in 2014—a loan which the party will continue to pay off until 2028. In its reporting on this affair, investigative journal Mediapartunearthed documents pointing to a possible arrangement by which Le Pen’s party would defend Russian interests in the European Parliament and in media interviews. Definitive proof of such a quid pro quo is lacking, but the Rassemblement National’s contingent of MEPs has strongly backed Putin’s agenda in recent years. For example, an April 2021 resolution condemning Alexei Navalny’s continued imprisonment and threatening sanctions in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was opposed by all 23 of the Rassemblement National’s representatives, despite receiving resounding support from the European Parliament writ large. (Notably, the six MEPs from Mélenchon’s La France insoumise abstained.) Le Pen’s Eurodeputies also unanimously voted against condemning the persecution of Russian human rights organization Memorial in December 2021, and they refused (again unanimously) to support calls for new elections and a stop to Russian interference in Belarus in September 2020.
On Shaky Ground
The war in Ukraine has forced the three candidates into a kind of tap dance, with each of them forcefully condemning the Russian invasion while downplaying their past comments and actions. Criticism has nonetheless been relentless. At a National Assembly session devoted to Ukraine earlier this month, a deputy from the mainstream right-wing party Les Républicains spoke on behalf of his colleagues, accusing Zemmour, Le Pen, and Mélenchon of maintaining “an unhealthy fascination”with Putin. Rival presidential candidates have also seized upon the opportunity: Anne Hidalgo, who represents the center-left Parti Socialiste, charged her populist opponents with being “agents who have served the interests of Putin rather than those of France.”
While all three candidates are under scrutiny, the figure whose electoral chances have been most threatened by the war (as of the writing of this article) is clearly Zemmour. With a now-infamous interview of him saying he “dreams” of a “French Putin” making the rounds, his poll numbers have sunk—a trend which only worsened when he stated on national radio that he would not welcome Ukrainian refugees if he were president. Perhaps more importantly, however, he has lost his grip on the national narrative. A media-savvy figure whose popularity has been fueled by controversial, attention-grabbing quips about immigration and cultural clash, Zemmour now finds himself undermined by a real news story—one which dwarfs the shock value of his fearmongering discourse.
Curiously, Le Pen and Mélenchon have not experienced a similar backlash in the polls, even though they have not completely changed their tune. While calling for peace in Ukraine, they have also both used their stature as National Assembly deputies and presidential candidates to demand that sanctions against Russia be lifted or diminished—Le Pen, because she purportedly fears the impact on French citizens’ purchasing power; Mélenchon, because he considers it wrong to punish the Russian people for their government’s actions. Despite Le Pen’s Russian connections, French mainstream reporting has been somewhat forgiving, with many outlets suggesting that she has distanced herself from Putin in recent years. Mélenchon, meanwhile, has not indulged in ‘Putin-philia’ in the same way his right-wing rivals have.
Nevertheless, their media nightmare is far from over. Should any of these populist politicians secure enough votes this April to be the run-off candidate against Macron—because, by all predictions, Macron is the man to beat—they will be strongly questioned about their foreign policy records. This will be particularly troublesome during the presidential debate, which normally takes place a few days before the run-off vote. With the war in Ukraine now among French voters’ most serious concerns, the question of the candidates’ relationships to Putin’s Russia will likely remain in focus throughout this election season.
Note: A version of this article was first published on the OPUS Young Scholars Initiative on Populism Medium Blog.
 The term “populist” is often primarily applied to far right-wing politicians, yet it can be applied to left-of-center figures as well. A former member of the French Socialist Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon split off to create a new far-left movement with the Communist Party in the late 2000s; disappointed with this political union, he split off again in 2016 to form La France insoumise. This newer movement has dropped most of the communist symbols and references which Mélenchon formerly embraced, pursuing instead an all-encompassing approach of channeling popular outrage. Inspired in particular by left-wing populist leaders in South America, Mélenchon is one of few candidates to call for a complete overhaul of the French government. He also has notably embraced the label of populist, claiming in a 2010 interview, “Populiste, moi? J’assume!” (“Me, a populist? Guilty as charged!”) See: L’Express. (2010). Mélenchon: “Populiste, moi? J’assume!” https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/politique/melenchon-populiste-moi-j-assume_919603.html.
 Exactly how indebted the Rassemblement National is to various Russian banks is unclear. Several reports have emerged in recent years alleging that Le Pen and her associates have sought additional loans from Russian lenders, with amounts ranging from a few million to 27 million euros. Only the 2014 loan of 9.4 million euros has been confirmed by the Rassemblement National, whose leadership protested that French banks would not deal with them. In 2017, the French government enacted a law which prevented political actors from seeking funding outside of the European Economic Area (among other provisions). As a consequence, the Rassemblement National has recently sought and received a 10.7 million euro loan from a Hungarian bank with ties to Prime Minister Viktor Orban. See: Ganley, Elaine. (2016). French far right short on funds. Can Russia help, again? AP News. https://apnews.com/article/96c01541f5a640e185b8881321fe4858. | Reuters. (2022). France’s Le Pen got loan from Hungarian bank close to Orban—filing. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/frances-le-pen-got-loan-hungarian-bank-close-orban-filing-2022-03-10/.
 VoteWatch Europe. (2021). Russia, the case of Alexei Navalny, military build-up on Ukraine’s border and Russian attack in the Czech Republic. https://www.votewatch.eu/en/term9-russia-the-case-of-alexei-navalny-military-build-up-on-ukraine-s-border-and-russian-attack-in-the-cz.html.
 VoteWatch Europe. (2021). Continuous crackdown on civil society and human rights defenders in Russia: the case of human rights organisation Memorial. https://www.votewatch.eu/en/term9-continuous-crackdown-on-civil-society-and-human-rights-defenders-in-russia-the-case-of-human-rights–9.html. | VoteWatch Europe. (2020). Situation in Belarus. https://www.votewatch.eu/en/term9-situation-in-belarus-motion-for-resolution-vote-resolution-as-a-whole.html.
 The National Assembly (Assemblée nationale in French) is the lower and more prominent house of the bicameral French Parliament, comprising 577 members. Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are currently both serving as deputies within this legislative body.