BERLIN - While it’s unclear how well Russian President Vladimir Putin will get along with Donald Trump and his team of Republican hawks, it looks as though he has already won the French presidential election. The front-runner in the primary election of the French center-right, Francois Fillon, is nearly as enthusiastic a Russophile as Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, and the center-left hardly stands a chance in next year’s presidential election.
France is clearly in for some surprises in the election, scheduled for April 23. It already seems prudent to start disregarding the polls, just as sensible observers did before the U.S. election. Alain Juppe was considered to be the center-right front-runner before the primary. According to the polls, he was the one candidate who could confidently beat Le Pen. In the event, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who hoped for a political comeback and rivaled Le Pen in anti-immigrant toughness and euroskepticism, gave up after coming in third — and called on his backers to support Fillon, the surprise winner with a big lead over Juppe.
Socialist President Francois Hollande’s bumbling performance has dented the chances of any other candidate from his party, be it leftist zealot Arnaud Montebourg or pro-business Emmanuel Macron, who is running as an independent. If Hollande runs himself, that may be the worst outcome for the Socialists.
This means that, unless the Socialists can pull a rabbit out of a hat, France will get a Putin-friendly president next year.
Among the center-right candidates, Juppe was the most anti-Russian. He has condemned the Crimea annexation and the Russian bombings of Aleppo, accusing Russia of “war crimes” in Syria. “At a certain moment, we shouldn’t hesitate to tell Putin ‘stop,’ ” he has said. If he ended up running against Le Pen, Putin would have a thing or two to worry about; he might even need to find a way to provide more funding for the National Front leader. With Fillon as the center-right candidate, he can relax.
Sarkozy’s one-time prime minister cannot be accused of being a “Manchurian candidate” or of being on Putin’s payroll. The pro-business French right has plenty of money of its own. Fillon has consistently backed Russia in Syria since 2012, saying Moscow could be instrumental in resolving the conflict and refraining from calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s removal until the Islamic State group is defeated.
In 2013, Fillon was a guest of the Valdai forum, which Putin and his foreign policy elite use to communicate Russia’s policy views to Western experts; apart from calling for cooperation in Syria, he expressed hope that Europe would soon abolish short-term visas for Russia — something that’s not even on the agenda today.
Fillon has also been fervently against economic sanctions against Russia following Putin’s Crimean escapade. In April, Fillon welcomed a French parliament resolution that called for lifting the sanctions. He called them “inept and strategically devastating for our farmers” as well as counterproductive. Russia, along with France, is involved in fighting the Islamic State, he reasoned.
Fillon’s position is so long-standing and unequivocal it shouldn’t be compared with Trump’s impulsive and often ignorant statements on Russia during the election campaign. When Trump promised to “look into” lifting sanctions, the press seized on it as a declaration of intent to abolish them, but it was most likely a Trumpian fudge. Fillon, a professional politician with plenty of international experience, knows what he’s talking about, and it’s difficult to imagine him suddenly abandoning long-held views upon election.
Some European Union officials have lately attempted to shore up EU unity on the sanctions ahead of Trump’s inauguration, sensing there might not be support for them from Washington anymore. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s German government has worked in concert with Hollande’s France to punish Russia for its Ukrainian depredations, and smaller EU nations have gone along with then, falling in with the U.S. line.
Extending the sanctions before Trump takes the reins may look good as a symbolic gesture of defiance and an ad for Western values, still alive in Europe but perhaps not in the U.S. Yet, whether Fillon or Le Pen, who has declared her admiration for Putin, wins the French election, the sanctions are likely to be doomed — an inglorious end to a hostile measure that has helped Putin mobilize Russians against the West, consolidated his domestic support, did little economic damage beyond forcing Russia’s state companies to pay down their debts and, of course, failed to stop the Kremlin from meddling in Ukraine.
After U.S. Democrats’ endless stream of complaints about Russian meddling in the presidential election, the possibility of interference from Moscow has turned into a bogeyman with Europe. Indeed, Moscow has backed the far right parties, both openly and covertly, and it might conceivably use its hacking prowess to dig up compromising information on European politicians.
In France’s case, however, none of this may be necessary: In a change election, it may simply be time for the moderate right’s turn at the wheel — and the French moderate right has never been anti-Russian. Merkel, who faces her own election in the fall, will soon need to decide whether, with France about to jump ship, it’s worth her while to back sanctions. Many in Germany will be relieved if she decides it isn’t.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Russian writer and Bloomberg View columnist. He founded the opinion website Slon.ru.