France’s two-stage presidential election begins Sunday, and it’s passing strange that no matter the outcome, Vladimir Putin will win. Incumbent President Emmanuel Macron is leading the polls, at slightly more than 28 percent, and it seems all but inevitable that he will compete in the second round against Marine Le Pen, who is polling just above 22 percent. He drubbed her in the 2017 election and will probably do it twice.
Both are known for their overtures to Putin, but the case of Macron is particularly curious. His five-year term has seen ever-more outrageous Russian aggression. Indeed, his introduction to leadership on the international stage was Russia’s attack on the 2017 French election campaign, when directly before the final round, their hackers leaked two gigabytes of data stolen, allegedly, from Macron’s campaign and purportedly replete with evidence of his improprieties, sexual and financial. This was the culmination of a months-long Russian disinformation campaign in favor of Le Pen and against Macron. The leaks fizzled because Macron’s campaign, having seen what happened to Hillary Clinton, had prepared, seeding ludicrous documents among the leaked ones to muddy the waters. (The hackers, too, were culturally unfamiliar with France; they labored, for example, under the impression that French voters would be dissuaded, not encouraged, by revelations of Macron’s peculiar sexual tastes. The leaks interested the American right more than they did the French electorate.)
Such an introduction to Russia’s malevolence might subdue a president’s enthusiasm for Moscow, especially given its contemporaneous attacks on other Western democracies, incessant cyberattacks, poisonings, assassinations on Western soil, and, of course, war crimes in Ukraine and Syria. But Macron has spent the past five years trying to draw Russia into his embrace, evidence be damned. Germany apart, the rest of Europe — the Baltic states and Ukraine, in particular — have viewed Macron as a preening, Putin-loving nincompoop at best, an outright menace to European security and NATO’s integrity at worst.
But this isn’t the strangest part. Macron, at least, comes by his Russophilia honestly. Le Pen, the far-right candidate, is literally on Moscow’s payroll, and lest the libel editor send this back to me with the words, “We can’t say this!” — oh yes, we can. She has given Putin his money’s worth, too, hewing faithfully and proudly to the Kremlin line. “I admire Vladimir Putin,” she told the Russian journal Kommersant, noting that Europe’s economic crisis offered “an opportunity to turn our back to the U.S. and turn toward Russia.” She called for lifting the “completely stupid” EU sanctions against Russia because there had been “no invasion” of Crimea, which had “always been Russian.” Echoing Moscow, she described Ukraine’s (freely elected) government as the product of “a coup d’état.” When the EU, the U.S., and the UN called the 2014 referendum in Crimea illegitimate, she retorted that its legitimacy was “indisputable.” (Later that day, a Kremlin official sent her an SMS asking “how to thank” her.)
Accidents happen in democracies. It’s possible Macron or Le Pen could lose. So consider the candidates nipping at their ankles. Support for the far-left showboat Jean-Luc Mélenchon has risen to 15 percent; flash-in-the-pan Eric Zemmour — a candidate so far to the right he makes Le Pen look pink — has sunk to 11 percent. Pulling up the rear, at 9.5 percent, is the forgettable Valérie Pécresse, the first woman to lead France’s traditional center-right Les Républicains, and with numbers like those, probably the last. At least she is polling ahead of Anne Hidalgo, the candidate of the center-left Parti Socialiste; to judge from Hidalgo’s numbers, her mother might vote for her. Realistically, then, only five candidates have a shot — albeit a long one.
And all five would suit Moscow just fine.
In a normal election, Macron’s opponents would seize upon this opportunity to portray Macron as soft on Russia. But since they’ve all proposed to be softer, none have brought up the subject. Zemmour, like Le Pen, is literally a paid stooge of Moscow. Mélenchon is a stranger case. We have no evidence that he has dipped his beak, so we’re forced to conclude that he toes Moscow’s line because he agrees with it.
Even the bland Valérie Pécresse has avoided attacking Macron for his Russophile agenda, and no wonder; as a teenager, she attended communist youth camps in the USSR — “I took propaganda classes, I sang The International in Russian,” she explained proudly to Le Figaro in 2016, emphasizing her passion for Tolstoy. Asked recently what she would say to Putin, she replied, on prime time, in fluent Russian. But she didn’t take the occasion to say she would see him in the Hague or Hell, whichever came first. She offered instead a banality to the effect that she wished for peace in Europe. She has clearly calculated since then that the less she speaks of Russia (and the less she speaks in Russian) the better.
It’s worth remarking that Pécresse’s parents, Gaullist intellectuals, were close to former French President Jacques Chirac, also a fluent Russian speaker. Chirac translated a chapter from Eugene Onegin into French. He was awarded the highest Russian Order “For Merit to the Fatherland” for his contribution to Franco-Russian amity and an honorary doctorate from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Pécresse was the protégée, too, of former prime minister François Fillon, the last leader of Les Républicains to shoot for the presidency, in 2017. His campaign capsized when it emerged that he had given his family phony jobs on the state payroll. Pécresse defended him. Fillon then accepted positions on the boards of two Russian-state-owned oil groups, Sibur and Zarubezhneft. Photos have made the rounds showing Fillon in a state of happy bonhomie with the Russian vice-president Alexander Novak; this allowed Green Candidate Yannick Jadot (one of the only French politicians untainted by ties to Russia) to denounce Fillon as a tool of a foreign power and Pécresse as a tool by proxy. When asked, Pécresse had nothing better to offer than, “François Fillon has left politics, he has the right to be be left alone.” The obvious avenue of attack on Macron — to wit, that he’s Russia’s useful idiot — is just too risky for her.
But Pécresse, at least, is a normal candidate. It is not normal that another two candidates are on Moscow’s payroll and the third is reciting their party line gratis. But there you have it: 47.5 percent of the French electorate supports at least one of the Kremlin’s three stooges. If you add support for Macron and Pécresse, it would seem that 75 percent of the French electorate is eager to be represented by a president who makes a habit of humiliating France before Moscow.