The first round of the French presidential election takes place on Sunday and polls indicate that the race between incumbent Emmanuel Macron and National Rally leader Marine Le Pen is tightening.
If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in the first round (Macron is currently leading with a little more than 25 percent, Le Pen in the low 20’s) then it goes to a run off on April 24.
Yet Macron may find some comfort in Viktor Orban’s landslide victory in Hungary last Sunday. A number of analysts believe Orban’s handling of the competing pressures brought to bear on Hungary due to the war in Ukraine helped him secure a convincing victory over a broad six-party Left-Right coalition that included parties as disparate as the liberal Democratic Coalition and the far-right, anti-Semitic Jobbik.
While Orban has condemned the Russian invasion, he has also refused to join in any saber rattling of Hungary’s fellow Visegrad states and their Baltic neighbors. His policies, including a refusal to transfer weapons to Ukraine, reflect a determination to keep his country from becoming a co-belligerent in the conflict.
Marcon, too, might well see a “war bounce” come April 10.
Far right candidates Eric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, and the leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon have been hurt by their conciliatory statements toward Vladimir Putin. Center-right candidate Valérie Pécress has tried to gain traction in the race by painting the three as Putin apologists. But she hasn’t been able to do the same with Macron, and for good reason.
Macron has been able to skillfully thread the needle with a policy that might be summed up as this: condemn but engage.
In a speech to the nation on March 2, Macron noted that, “The consequences of these events will be felt not only in the near term, [or] over the course of the coming weeks,” he said. “They also signal the start of a new era.”
That seems only too true.
The crisis has allowed Macron to fully and at last step out from under the shadow cast by former German chancellor Angela Merkel. In a sense, Macron has also been helped by the competition, after all, the clownish Boris Johnson and the gaffe-prone Joe Biden have, so far anyway, failed to project clear messaging to meet the moment. Macron, perhaps alone among Western leaders, seems to possess the capacity to act as an honest broker between the Russians and Ukrainians.
Part of the reason for this has been his pursuit of “strategic autonomy” for France, of a foreign policy that is Gaullist, rather than Atlanticist in orientation. Gaullism, as I have written elsewhere, is a governing philosophy based on 4 pillars: On the primacy of national sovereignty and the nation state; on skepticism of Atlanticism and America’s imperial pretensions; on respect for national traditions; and on the value of East-West relations as exemplified by German chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and former President Richard Nixon’s détente.
There has long been a recognition among Macron's top advisers that the old Cold War paradigm as pursued by the United States and its NATO allies, including, especially, the UK, Poland, and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, is outdated.
In an interview with the Financial Times in February, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that Macron believes that “we needed to talk to Russia, even if it’s difficult, very demanding, exhausting . . . because it’s a neighbor, a big one, and it doesn’t intend to move out.” Bruno Le Maire, the French economy minister, has also called on NATO to “abandon its ideologized Cold War approaches.”
Recall that last June, Macron and Merkel proposed a summit meeting between Vladimir Putin and EU leaders. Yet the idea went nowhere, thanks in large part to the opposition of the Baltic states and Poland. In retrospect the decision to shelve the proposal seems the height of shortsightedness, particularly on part of the states on Russia’s western border who would benefit most from sustained security dialogue. The insistence on continuing to do what NATO member states have done for 30 years — that is, to speak loudly while the Uncle Sam carries the big stick — has not, to put it mildly, met the post-Cold War realities on the ground.
Appearing on French TV on March 27, Macron observed that, “The United States and Russia structured the world during the Cold War. We are no longer in the Cold War.” It is, he said, time for Europe to develop “a defense policy and we need to define a security architecture for ourselves and not delegate that task.”
European strategic autonomy is based on the recognition that in a multipolar world the old nostrums of American indispensability do not apply. Restrainers who want, as President Dwight Eisenhower did, the United States to draw down in Europe and for Europe to pay for its own defense and stand on its own, should welcome such a policy.