Ukraine war puts France’s skeptical NATO presidential candidates in an awkward position

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed world affairs to the fore in the French presidential race, upending a campaign in which three of the five leading candidates criticized the US-led transatlantic alliance.

As French President Emmanuel Macron returned from marathon talks with his Russian counterpart in Moscow on February 9, his closest rival in the race for the Elysee Palace offered her what she described as a “lukewarm” reception in the Kremlin.

“Macron appeared in Moscow not as a French president, but as a small courier for Hannato” and was treated as it should be, Marine Le Pen told RTL radio.

Just days ago, the leader of the far-right National Rally party reiterated her pledge to withdraw France from the integrated leadership of NATO. And she stressed in her first speech in her campaign rally that “France should not be dragged into the struggles of other peoples.”

French presidential election © JowharAs she spoke, a glossy eight-page leaflet promoting Le Pen’s leadership credentials was circulated to the public. It featured pictures of her posing with a group of prominent foreign figures, including Russian Vladimir Putin – whom she visited in the Kremlin during her previous presidential campaign in 2017.

Weeks later, the picture hasn’t aged well. With Ukraine in the midst of the largest military invasion of Europe since World War II, it is back to haunt Le Pen’s campaign, prompting some party officials to send the pamphlets — of which more than 1.2 million copies have been printed — to the shredder.

Sovereigns are under fire

The catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine shredded much more than Le Pen’s publications. She rewrote the full script of the French presidential contest, and propelled international affairs – usually a sideshow during campaigns – into the spotlight just over a month before the April 10 first round.

The war has offered France’s main parties – many of whose candidates are struggling in the polls – a new opportunity to turn around some of their most radical opponents and accuse them of being too close to Putin while erroneously vilifying NATO.

Criticism has centered on three of the presidential candidates – Le Pen, her far-right rival Eric Zemmour, and left-wing controversy Jean-Luc Mélenchon – who ranked second, third and fifth respectively, often grouped together for their “sovereign” rhetoric despite being at odds in many of issues.

The two far-right leaders spoke fondly of the unyielding nationalist approach of the Russian leader, who, in Zemmour’s case, even yearned for a “French Putin.” Lee Bin has previously ridiculed insinuations that Putin is a threat to Europe, saying that NATO has outlived him. its usefulness.

While Melenchon has no such affinity for the Kremlin strongman, he has in the past joined his opponents in downplaying Moscow’s threat even as he blamed NATO for stirring up trouble.

During heated debates in Parliament on Tuesday, Damien Abad, head of the main conservative Republican delegation in the National Assembly, accused the trio of harboring an “unhealthy fascination” with Putin – which he said had “deprived” them of holding France’s highest office.

Christophe Lagarde, a prominent centrist lawmaker, directed his fury at Zemmour, criticizing his “inappropriate” call for Ukrainian refugees to stay in Poland rather than go to France. “I suggest that he go to Kyiv and ask the local population what they think of the freedom and security that NATO protection provides,” he added.

With lawmakers at odds in Parliament, the French newspaper Le Monde published an unusually scathing article criticizing the “champions of French autonomy (…) who have fallen into the grip of Putin.”

The newspaper’s editorial writer Françoise Frisos, ironic at those who tried to claim the mantle of General Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime hero and post-war leader, wrote, “a foreign policy event has rarely left the candidates so exposed, revealing their deceitful ‘nonalignment’.”

“They portrayed themselves as de Gaullists,” she said. “Instead, all they have done is prove their vulnerability to a leader armed with nuclear weapons who knows no bounds.”

Putin’s crime, and NATO’s mistake, said Martin Koenez, a security analyst and deputy director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund, who said the Ukraine war was a tragic reminder of why NATO exists in the first place: to protect member states from a “very real” threat.

In this regard, he told France 24: “In this regard, the war is especially damned for those candidates who claimed that the threat did not exist.”

Their claims were based on two main arguments: first, that the Russian threat was exaggerated or even invented by US intelligence; The second, that Russia’s hostility was merely the result of aggression by NATO and the United States. Putin’s war has effectively killed both.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upsets French presidential campaign

Emmanuel Macron has yet to announce his candidacy for a second term © AFP Since the start of the war, France’s sovereign candidates have been quick to distance themselves from the Kremlin – with Le Pen claiming that the Russian leader “is no longer the Putin” she supported in 2017. All three flatly condemned the invasion Russian. However, they have largely touched the narrative itself regarding the causes behind the conflict.

Speaking to the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, Zemmour said the war was the result of “the obstinate Western refusal to take into account Russia’s security concerns.” Putin is “the guilty party,” he told RTL radio the next day, but “NATO expansion is to blame for the war.”

The far-right critic – who also wants to withdraw France from the integrated military command of NATO, as de Gaulle did in 1966 – has suggested appointing Hubert Vedrine, a former foreign minister, as French mediator to broker peace between Moscow and Kiev. This proposal was immediately rejected by Vedrine himself, who called Zemmour’s anti-NATO program “foolish, stupid, and coming at the worst possible time.”

“Even de Gaulle never intended to withdraw from the alliance,” the former minister told Le Monde newspaper. “France cannot isolate itself from the United States and its European partners.”

According to Queens, repeated calls by French politicians to withdraw from NATO are largely based on a misunderstanding of de Gaulle’s dangerous decision in 1966, when France withdrew from the alliance’s integrated command structure but did not withdraw from the alliance itself.

“One of the readings of de Gaulle’s move was the portrayal of NATO as a symbol of France’s alignment with American interests and policies,” he said. According to this interpretation, de Gaulle’s exit came to embody France’s determination to define its own interests independently of Washington.

However, Cowens added, “De Gaulle never questioned the fact that France was firmly on one side during the Cold War. During the major confrontations of his presidency, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or the construction of the Berlin Wall, he sided firmly with the West and condemned the Soviets. The belief That Gaullist policy means non-alignment, in the sense of the Cold War, is a historical mistake.”

As French candidates skeptical of NATO are under pressure to distance themselves from Russia, Queens said their criticism of the US-led coalition will continue because it is “part of a political tradition in France”.

He explained that “the hostility towards NATO is only a symptom of a broader global vision under which the United States is considered a threat to French sovereignty.” He added, citing the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which the United States forced the declining European imperial powers – Britain and France – into “French geostrategic thought, in part, from previous crises in which Paris and Washington were at odds”. Humiliating climbing.

“The British and the French drew opposing lessons from Suez,” said Queens. “The former decided that they should never again be at odds with the United States, while the French decided that they should develop an independent capacity in order to escape American dictates.”

Stuck in the Cold War? France’s independent nuclear capability explains in part why the French are more critical of NATO than their European counterparts. Unlike their continental neighbors, the French had their own deterrent force. It is also further away from the Russian border than most other European countries.

According to Melenchon, leader of the France Unbowed party, NATO’s decision to move closer to Russia’s borders since the end of the Cold War is the root cause of the multiple crises that unfolded in the post-Soviet world. NATO looks at what it sees as a Western failure to transition from Cold War-era thinking.

As the left-wing daily Liberation wrote last month, Mélenchon’s “aversion to NATO is rooted in his mistrust of the United States, which he sees as the chief threat to world peace as much as a declining hegemon” — and thus obsessed with alienating rivals.

In a chapter devoted to the topic of “peace,” his policy program describes the transatlantic alliance as “a tool for making countries subservient to the United States,” describing NATO as an “old” institution that must be disbanded at the end of the Cold War.” Instead, it merely expanded its reach With dire consequences for peace and our security.”

Le President s’est placé dans une status qui fait baisser la crédibilité de la France. Les Français doivent être non-aligned. Les Russes ne doivent pas passer la frontière de l’Ukraine, les Américains ne doivent pas attacher l’# Ukraine dans l’ #OTAN. #Dimple pic.twitter.com/8d98r8a1h9

– Jean-Luc Melenchon (@JLMelenchon) February 20, 2022 Just a week before the start of the all-out Russian invasion, Mélenchon called for French “non-alignment” in the Ukrainian standoff, writing on Twitter: “The Russians must not go beyond Ukraine’s borders, which must be respected, and the Americans not to include Ukraine in NATO.

Melenchon, who advocated declaring Ukraine a “neutral country”, appears unmoved by the fact that European countries were eager to join NATO, seeking to protect it from the more visible threat of Russian aggression. While Russian forces are penetrating deep into Ukraine, refusing to talk about changing the situation.

“Our condemnation of the Russian military intervention does not mean that we have changed our position, on the contrary,” he told reporters at the weekend during a trip to the French Pacific island of La Reunion. I have always said that we cannot continue to humiliate Russia by pushing NATO too close to its borders. It’s a risk they will never accept.”

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