Emmanuel Macronâ€™s failed attempt to prevent an escalation of tensions in Ukraine gave his rivals a golden opportunity to criticize the French president ahead of Aprilâ€™s election â€” but none of them can really claim they would have done better.
The four leading candidates competing against Macron for the presidency have either openly supported Russian President Vladimir Putin during their campaign or avoided explicitly criticizing Russia.
A day after Putin ordered his military forces into the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk,Â some senior politicians in France were still cautious in their criticism of the Kremlin, despite the fact that his aggressive step could potentially trigger the bloodiest conflict on the European continent since World War II.
On Tuesday, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has long-standing ties with the Kremlin, called Russian troop movements in Ukraine a â€œreally regrettableâ€ act but said that she â€œstill believed in diplomacy.â€
While the far right has long cozied up to Russia, ambivalence toward Putin is particularly striking in Franceâ€™s mainstream conservative camp, with many wavering between calls for firmness toward Russia and respect for the vision championed by Charles de Gaulle, who withdrew his country fromÂ NATOâ€™s military integrated command and tried to establish France as an alternative power during the Cold War.
ValÃ©rie PÃ©cresse, the presidential candidate for conservative party Les RÃ©publicains, condemned Putinâ€™s actions Tuesday but quickly put the blame on Macronâ€™s â€œarrogant and solitary diplomacy,â€ saying his recent trip to Moscow was too little, too late.
Last month, she pitched a â€œEuropean conference on securityâ€ that would involve European leaders and Russia, calling in an op-ed published by Le Monde on â€œour Russian friendsâ€ to engage with European partners to solve the Ukraine crisis.
Putinâ€™s decision to intervene in Ukraine dealt a fatal blow to Macronâ€™s diplomatic efforts to restart dialogue with Russia, including with a high-profile visit to Russian president.
Macronâ€™s failed efforts to act as Europeâ€™s mediator and secure a de-escalation in the crisis were also deemed opportunistic by some, as the French president is in the coming days expected to officially announce that he will be seeking reelection.
But while his actions were widely criticized outside of France, itâ€™s far from certain that voters will punish Macron for going it alone on Russia.
The right-leaning candidatesâ€™ ambivalent-at-best attitude toward Russia reflects broader defiance within the country toward international partners when it comes to defending the countryâ€™s interests.
In a study conducted in January and published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank, only 47 percent of French respondents said they trust NATO to protect EU citizensâ€™ interests in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the lowest level among seven countries polled.
â€œThe complacency towards Russia transcends the French political class and it is evident on the right,â€ said Tara Varma, a senior policy fellow and head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. â€œBefore, it was restricted to the extreme right and left but now it also affects the governing parties.â€
â€œOn the right, there is the Gaullist nostalgia vis-Ã -vis Moscow,â€ said Pierre Sellal, a former French ambassador to the EU. â€œOn the left, they are inaudible on these issues â€¦ They have speaking points that sound like doublespeak.â€
The Greensâ€™ Yannick Jadot is the presidential candidate who has adopted the toughest stance on Russia, calling it a â€œdictatorshipâ€ and Putin a â€œbloody dictator.â€ Jadot is currently polling at 5 percent.
Putinâ€™s defenders include Eric Zemmour, the far-right TV pundit-turned-candidate who recently called the president â€œa Russian patriotâ€ who is entitled to â€œdefend Russian interests.â€
Far-left leader Jean-Luc MÃ©lenchon, the only left-leaning candidate currently in double digits in POLITICOâ€™s Poll of Polls, has called Russia â€œa partner.â€ His pro-Russian stance is mostly imbued with hostility toward the United States.
Zemmour did not mention Putin by name in his statement following the events in Ukraine. Instead, he made clear that the current situation was â€œalsoâ€ the result of â€œpolicies led by the West and NATO,â€ advocated against sanctions and suggested declaring the end of NATOâ€™s eastern expansion in a new treaty.
â€œFor the extreme right and extreme left, itâ€™s evident that they run through Putinâ€™s talking points,â€ said Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP and Macron ally who chairs the European Parliamentâ€™s subcommittee on security and defense. â€œWithin Les RÃ©publicains, there has always been a complacent trend towards Putin.â€
Yet with Russiaâ€™s military intervention in Ukraine, pro-Russia positions will become harder to sustain for many presidential candidates.
PÃ©cresse, the conservative candidate, made clear last Saturday that Europeâ€™s message to Russia had to be â€œfirm like steel.â€
But her tone contrasted with her earlier op-ed, in which she wrote about â€œeternal Russia â€¦ that of Tolstoy and Pushkin, the country I know and I love,â€ and which is â€œpart of the European continent.â€
PÃ©cresse has not shied away from declaring her love of Russia and its authors in other interviews. She once said that she had learnt Russian after reading Boris Pasternakâ€™s â€œDoctor Zhivago,â€ and addressed the â€œproud Russian peopleâ€ in Russian during a recent TV appearance.
More evidence of Les RÃ©publicainsâ€™ attitude toward Russia is the fact that FranÃ§ois Fillon, Franceâ€™s former prime minister and a PÃ©cresse ally, recently joined the board of Russiaâ€™s largest petrochemical producer Sibur, which has businessman Gennady Timchenko, a close ally of Putin, as one of its major stakeholders. In June, Fillon joined the board of another Russian company, Zarubezhneft, which carries out oil and gas exploration.
Fillonâ€™s closeness to Russian power led some government officials, including ClÃ©ment Beaune, the EU affairs minister, to ask PÃ©cresse to â€œclarify her positionâ€ regarding the former PM, who â€œdishonors himself by offering his services to Russian financial interests.â€