War in Ukraine takes centre stage in France's presidential elections

French TV channel TF1,
5 min read
21 March, 2022
In-depth: As France's presidential elections enter the first round, one issue has dominated political discourse: the war in Ukraine.

Less than a month before the first round of the French presidential elections on 10 April, the war in Ukraine has already had a significant impact on the candidates’ perceptions among voters.

Although already declared the favourite before the war, current president and official candidate Emmanuel Macron has enjoyed a boost in the polls.

The latest survey on voting intentions in the first round point to a large lead for Emmanuel Macron with 30% of the vote, far ahead of Marine Le Pen for the National Rally with 17%.

The other main candidates, from the moderate right with Valérie Pécresse, the left with Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the far-right with Eric Zemmour are estimated to reach around 10-12% on the first round, while the others trail far behind.

“It is at a level unseen before for a current President,” Jean-Yves Camus, associate researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, told The New Arab.

“It’s unexpected if we look back at the amount and magnitude of protests against him and his government over the past five years.”

"Although already declared the favourite before the war, current president and official candidate Emmanuel Macron has enjoyed a boost in the polls"

Protests have been a regular occurrence during Macron’s presidency, especially at the end of 2019, right before the pandemic spread across Europe, with the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) movement mobilising people dissatisfied with the current state of the social and economical situation in France.

Macron is also largely considered the 'president of the rich' as a former investment banker who dedicated his first months in office to granting more flexibility for financial groups and big firms while stepping continuously on labour, unemployment, and retirement rights.

“Despite people not being very enthusiastic about him [Macron], he has been France’s leader during multiple crises, notably during the pandemic,” Mathieu Gallard, account director at market research firm Ipsos, told The New Arab.

Ahead of the first round of election on April 10, French voters have been listening closely to candidates' positions on the Ukraine war. [Getty]
Ahead of the first round of elections on 10 April, French voters have been listening closely to candidates' positions on the Ukraine war. [Getty]

“Being in charge in a time of crisis, whether it’s economic or health-related, always benefits the current president. He was already high in the surveys before the war in Ukraine, and he has indeed been the most visible candidate, actively involved, talking to Putin and then reporting directly to the French people,” Gallard added.

Despite initially having failed to understand the gravity of the situation and Putin’s intentions, Macron has rekindled a sort of diplomatic relationship with Russia’s leader, maintaining a line of communication while still taking a strong stance against him and setting strong boundaries.

“He [Macron] tried to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” Camus told The New Arab. “French people like the idea of a ‘ship captain’, a politically strong man up to the challenge, firm without adopting warlike attitudes and therefore putting France forward.”

But Macron’s diplomatic moves are not the only reason he is considered the favourite. The presidential campaign has been very slow to pick up momentum and few candidates have announced a comprehensive platform, with their ideas seen as confusing to most voters.

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“Macron benefits from the other candidates’ weakness,” Gallard said. “France went from Covid to the war in Ukraine in a very short time so the campaign is very short this year, with very little content. It makes it hard for people to get interested in the campaign, and for the candidates to reverse the situation.”

Some candidates are also paying the price for their perceived allegiance towards Russia, notably for Pécresse of The Republicans, whose party derives from Gaullism, a movement based on the political actions of former President Charles de Gaulle.

Gaulle wanted France to find its way among the two power blocs at the time, the United States and the USSR, which pushed him to establish a relationship with Soviet leaders. In the 2017 presidential elections, this connection was reinforced when François Fillon, the Republican candidate, notably took a week to resign from his positions in Russian companies.

Although friendly towards Russia, Marine Le Pen reacted quickly to the invasion of Ukraine. She shifted her tone to reject military aggression while emphasising that the war couldn’t be supported and that France should welcome Ukrainian refugees.

"With the war in Ukraine dominating French political discourse over the past month, it will inevitably have a lasting impact on the presidential elections"

Further to the right, Zemmour has failed to take a definitive stance, criticising Russia's invasion while warning about the flood of Ukrainian refugees in Europe and NATO expansionism. 

He has backed visas for Ukrainian refugees who have family ties to France but said it was acceptable to have different rules for would-be asylum seekers from Europe and those from Arab Muslim nations

"There are people who are like us and people who [are] unlike us. Everybody now understands that Arab or Muslim immigrants are too unlike us and that it is harder and harder to integrate them," he said.

He has also been criticised for past comments about Russia, stating in 2020 that Moscow was "the most reliable ally, even more than the United States, Germany or Britain". 

In 2018 he said, “I dream of a French Putin emerging but there is none", while the hashtag #VladimirZemmour even appeared online earlier in March.

His support has fallen by at least 3 to 4 points in voter surveys to 12% since the Russian invasion.

On the other side of the political spectrum, left-wing candidates performed no better on the question of Ukraine, largely denouncing the war but avoiding discussing issues of defence thoroughly or blaming NATO expansionism. 

Many on the left have united against Mélenchon, who has been vocally pro-Putin in the past and is now trying to downplay his support for Russia.

With the war in Ukraine dominating French political discourse over the past month, it will inevitably have a lasting impact on the presidential elections.

Above all, candidates’ positions on the Russian invasion of Ukraine will be the distinguishing factor in the first round of elections on 10 April.

“All the other topics have disappeared, it’s not healthy,” Camus concluded. 

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Norway after six years spent in Lebanon. She reports on the environment, women's issues, human rights, and refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena