A possible victory by Le Pen, a Putin-sympathizer, could destabilize the Western coalition against Moscow, upend France’s role as Europe’s leading power and potentially give other NATO leaders cold feet when it comes to staying in the alliance , according to three senior government officials who are not authorized to discuss private talks publicly.
Senior US officials have been keeping a wary eye across the Atlantic for signs of possible Russian interference in the first round of elections taking place on Sunday. Polls suggest Macron and Le Pen would then likely advance to a showdown on April 24 – and that the potential two-person race would be close.
In her third attempt as presidential candidate, Le Pen has grown sharply in recent weeks as she toned down some of her notoriously inflammatory rhetoric to focus on cost-of-living issues. Millions in France are struggling to make ends meet after a 35 per cent rise in gas prices last year.
Her resume is deeply concerning to the White House.
Though Le Pen describes herself as a benign populist, her campaign platform on immigration and Islam is still radical, with plans to ban the veil from all public places and bar foreigners from enjoying the same rights as French citizens. Her surname is synonymous with racism and xenophobia in certain circles – she is now the front woman for the far-right anti-immigration party her father founded. And she’s an unabashed admirer of Putin, whom she met in Moscow in 2017. Although she has distanced herself somewhat from the Russian president since the invasion of Ukraine, she has expressed sympathy with Putin’s case for war and some of the Western coalitions have dismissed tough measures against Russia.
“Do we want to die? Economically we would die!” she asked in a recent televised debate when asked whether France should stop oil and gas imports from Russia. “We have to think of our people.”
A once-unthinkable Le Pen victory would leave the European Union facing its biggest crisis since Brexit, potentially triggering a slow death rattle for the constellation of countries and turning a continent completely upside down. And in the short term, it would deeply shake the pro-Ukraine coalition stretching from Warsaw to Washington.
The worst-case scenario, according to White House officials, would be that Le Pen could win and then pull France out of the coalition that currently stands alongside Kyiv against Moscow. Macron’s government has already walked a fine line with Moscow, with the French president attempting to play the role of mediator in the days leading up to Putin’s invasion. Since then, France has supported the Ukrainians with arms and supplies, but they remain silent about it and refuse to release details about what and how much they are sending.
Washington fears that a Le Pen in the Élysée would upset this delicate balance. Their victory could then prompt other European leaders – some of whom were already nervous about getting tough on Russia – to move against the alliance as well.
Some Biden supporters believe that even if Macron wins a close re-election, it could still have a chilling effect on European leaders, who may worry about their own political future against less toxic populists than Le Pen. This fear could only deepen if the war between Russia and Ukraine turns into a protracted conflict lasting months and months, leading to higher energy prices across Europe, a continent dependent on Moscow for energy.
“We have no comment on another country’s presidential campaign. France is a close ally of the United States and we continue to work with France on a variety of issues of common concern,” said Adrienne Watson of the National Security Council.
“Your election to support Ukraine would be a disaster for Europe and the transatlantic front,” said Benjamin Haddad, senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council. “She is against sanctions and arms deliveries, and has always been guided by Kremlin talks about Ukraine or NATO. Her platform includes leaving NATO military command and a series of anti-EU blocking measures that would de facto amount to a later Frexit, although this time she has dropped Frexit from her agenda so as not to scare off voters.”
Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was once considered Europe’s ambassador to Putin, a cloak that has now fallen on Macron following her departure. On the eve of war, Macron sat at Putin’s famous long table to avert an invasion; The two leaders have spoken on the phone several times since then. Macron has been criticized for hiring Putin, notably by the Polish President and Prime Minister.
Back in France, a certain resentment has grown that Macron – who beat Le Pen in 2017 — has focused far more on international diplomacy than national concerns and pocketbook troubles for a country grappling with a pandemic after two years. Macron tussled with the so-called “yellow vest” protesters, initially sparked by a gas tax and then expanding into a broader movement in 2018-19. He also never managed to shed the stigma of being a leader “from Paris” — not France — who failed to empathize with everyday issues.
His late arrival in the presidential campaign, confident that his work as an international statesman would guarantee a second term, is typical of some voters.
According to most analysts, a Le Pen victory remains unlikely. In its run five years ago, the polls were tight for a time before the race turned into a notable Macron victory. And if the field is narrowed down to just two, it can become simply unpalatable to many voters.
But if Macron were defeated by Le Pen this time, it could tear a huge crack in the transatlantic wall being built by Biden and his European counterparts. After four tumultuous years of Donald Trump that strained traditional alliances, Biden has made it his mission to reassure Europe that it can count on the United States again. He has made three trips to Europe during his presidency – including Brussels and Poland last month – to reaffirm those ties, and he has recommitted the US to the NATO alliance designed as a bulwark against Moscow’s aggression. The dispute between Paris and Washington over the AUKUS deal, which deprived France of a lucrative submarine deal with Australia, now seems largely behind Biden and Macron.
Washington has been monitoring the election and sharing information about possible Russian interventions, from bots to fake accounts, though most of Moscow’s cyber efforts are currently focused on sharing propaganda in support of the war effort in Ukraine, officials said.
Western allies have worked largely in lockstep to impose vice-like economic sanctions on Moscow and provide Ukraine with the military equipment it needs. Russia’s invasion has struggled in recent days, and Putin has already been forced to drastically scale back his war aims.
But he would get a big boost from a Le Pen win. This time, she has relentlessly focused on economic issues, promising to cut gas and electricity prices and tax hiring foreign workers to favor locals. But while she has toned down her rhetoric and benefited from the presence of a candidate further to the right, she has done little to change her platform, including actions such as removing benefits for many immigrants, denying the primacy of EU law and closing the door on most asylum seekers.
“Le Pen poses an historic threat to one of the most important democracies in Europe,” says Lauren Speranza, director of the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “She has praised Putin, who is a war criminal and dependent on Russian money.
“If she leads France, it will be incredibly difficult to maintain the relative unity that the transatlantic community has shown so far in the Ukraine war,” Speranza said. “Your election would directly benefit Putin’s goal of deepening fissures in the NATO alliance.”
And she cannot escape her past praise for Putin. Macron has repeatedly pressed this pointHe told reporters this week that he was not the candidate in the running who had shown “complacence towards Vladimir Putin.”
In 2017, she expressed her support for Putin’s invasion of Crimea and her opposition to EU sanctions in response to the annexation. If she had won then, she promised to lift the sanctions. Just two weeks ago, she told French television that Putin could “become an ally of France again” after the end of the war.
“Russia is not going anywhere,” she told French public broadcaster France 2. “I’ve always said that a great power can be an ally in many situations.”
Alex Ward contributed to this report.