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Marcron v. Le Pen: What the French election means for the US

These presidential candidates, locked now in a super tight race, have vastly differing positions on Russia and European cohesion.

Analysis | Europe

As they go down the final stretch of the French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen sound much the same when it comes to foreign policy. On Ukraine, Russia, and NATO, the two candidates seem to share similar assessments and positions. But beware of surface similarities. In fact, Macron and Le Pen have deep disagreements on many critical foreign policy issues. The outcome of the French election will matter a great deal to the United States.

Both Macron and Le Pen have tried to strike a delicate balance when it comes to Russia: condemnation of the Russian invasion but desire to maintain contact with Moscow. Macron’s efforts since 2019 in developing a personal relationship with Putin and extending a hand to Moscow have often been denounced as ham-handed or even naïve by his European partners. But Le Pen’s ties with the Kremlin go much deeper than a willingness to negotiate. Her party, the Rassemblement National, or National Rally, is the beneficiary of two loans from Russian banks. It also opposed sanctions against Russia after Moscow’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Le Pen played down her previous support for Putin before the first round of the election. But more recently, she came out once again in favor of forming an alliance with Russia in a “new European security architecture.” She has announced that, as president, she would form an alliance in the European Union with Hungary’s Viktor Orban to transform the EU from the inside, focusing her attention on migration and social issues. But the effect of a Budapest-Paris-Moscow axis on the EU would almost certainly extend well beyond social issues. The ideological divisions it would create within the EU would essentially hamstring any effective European geopolitical action with respect to Russia (and probably China, too).

Le Pen would also want to withdraw from NATO integrated command as soon as the war in Ukraine ends. She describes the organization as a “warmongering alliance,” rendering it responsible, by its enlargement to the East, for the current war in Ukraine. She would put an end to France’s provision of weapons to Ukraine, both bilaterally and through the EU.

Le Pen also wants to give up all European defense industrial plans in order to focus on France’s national defence system. She would turn away from the Franco-German tandem and seek more cooperation with the United Kingdom and Poland, in particular. Though she has formally given up on the idea of withdrawing France from the EU (“Frexit”), she would implement a purely transactional and self-interested foreign policy, reminiscent of Donald Trump’s “America First” approach. If France, a founding and central member of the EU, were to take this position, it would essentially spell the end of the European integration process.

The approach to European integration is where the two candidates most fundamentally diverge. If re-elected, Macron wants to build a true European power that can provide for its own security, ensure European prosperity, and defend European interests and values on the world stage. This means building up the capacity of the EU, in cooperation with NATO, to act as a security actor in Europe and its neighborhood. It also entails launching defense industrial projects with key European partners in the East and North of Europe, too. The intent would be to transform the strong European reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the use of sanctions, the activation of the European Peace Facility and the rethinking European enlargement — into an EU power projection capability.

From a U.S. perspective, these are starkly different futures. For all its shortcomings, Macron’s France remains the last best hope for a Europe that can provide for its own security and reduce America’s security burdens in Europe. Le Pen, by contrast, would lead France in a retreat into itself. Her destruction of the idea of a Europe that is capable of geopolitical action would leave the United States with the Hobson’s choice of abandoning Europe to the tender mercies of Russia and China or assuming ever greater security burdens on the old continent.

Photo: Symeonidis Dimitrios via shutterstock.com
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