France goes to the polls for the first round of its presidential election in April and there is fear that ballot will produce the same upheavals as did the presidential campaign in the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. In the uncertainty that has swamped politics in Europe, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen appears to have better chances than ever before, although she is being pressed by another challenger to the established political order, Emmanuel Macron, a former economy minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande who is running as an independent. As Moscow continues its efforts to undermine and de-legitimize Western democracies, alleged Russian interference in the election magnifies the uncertainty.
The campaign began with former Prime Minister Francois Fillon looking set to capitalize on disaffection with Hollande’s tenure and reclaiming the presidency for the center-right. But he has been dogged by allegations that his wife was paid a salary — more than €800,000 over a 10-year period — as a parliamentary aide without doing any work. (According to one report she had neither a parliamentary pass or a work email account.) She is also reported to have been paid another €100,000 for writing a few articles for a literary magazine owned by a billionaire friend of the family. Finally, Fillon’s two children were paid for doing legal work at their father’s office, although neither was qualified as a lawyer.
This is business as usual for many French politicians. The practice is not illegal and by one count 115 of 577 French members of Parliament hired family on either a full or part-time basis. The problem for Fillon is that his wife is on the record denying that she worked for him — in a video that has since disappeared — and he has a reputation for probity and separating work from family life. The inquiry is continuing but Fillon says he will fight the charges and contest the election.
The chief beneficiary of Fillon’s fall from grace is Macron, a former investment banker who has claimed the mantle of political outsider. A 39-year-old who has never contested a political election, Macron has ridden the same swell of popular discontent that propelled Donald Trump to office in the U.S. by heading the Onward! movement. He defies easy categorization, eschewing political ideology, and is pro-business while taking a progressive position on social issues.
His youth and energy have made Macron a leading contender in the April ballot. In the most recent opinion poll, he is leading Fillon by 4.5 percentage points, although some polls show the margin as narrow as 1 percent. The gap could narrow after Macron last week said that “crimes against humanity” were committed by the French state in its former colonies.
In fact, Macron is not leading in the polls. The leading candidate is Le Pen, who polls show has garnered 26 percent of voters. The problem for her, and her supporters, is that France has a two-step election process: the top two candidates in the first round go head to head in a May runoff, and all surveys show her losing the second ballot by a significant margin, no matter who she faces. While French voters may not agree on who they want to be president, a majority is certain that they do not want Le Pen in the Elysee and they will likely unite to defeat her in the second round.
The shared enmity toward Le Pen — whose fiercely nationalistic agenda has been supplemented in this campaign with a call to pull France from the European Union — could benefit the left. There are reports that Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon is discussing a joint effort with his hard-left counterpart, Jean-Luc Melenchon. Polls indicate that a single candidate that united their two constituencies would win enough votes to make the May runoff.
Adding to the drama are reports that Russia is meddling in the French election. Macron has said that his campaign is being hacked and he — along with others — believes it is being done by Russia to aid Le Pen, whose desire to weaken the EU aligns with Moscow’s foreign policy preferences. She has also called for lifting sanctions imposed on Russia for destabilizing Ukraine and she received a £10 million loan from Russia in 2014. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that Russia appears to be targeting Macron, which he denounced as “unacceptable.”
Russia has a target-rich environment this year, with France, Germany and the Netherlands all holding elections. In each country there are upstart parties prepared to question the prevailing political line that backs the EU and sees Russia as an antagonist. Even if its preferred candidate does not win, Russia is challenging the political consensus that has governed — and united — Europe for the past 50 years, and sowing doubts about the legitimacy of the Western democracies that, by their very existence, challenge Moscow. Those governments must not bend in their opposition to meddling and their commitment to the democratic principles that serve them so well.
It is unlikely that Le Pen could win without Russian help. While opinion polls have been wrong before, there is little reason to believe that the French people are ready to disavow their past and embrace her reactionary politics.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.