French elections in the midst of the Ukrainian war impacting the future of the EU

Overshadowed by the Ukrainian war, the campaigns for the French presidential elections ending with the final round on the 24th April have been differently impacted by the recent evolutions in Ukraine. Which candidate benefits from the crisis and why? And how will the European Union potentially be impacted by the result?

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, marking the first time since the end of the Second World War that a country in Europe changed borders by force, the situation in Ukraine has had various long-standing effects across the continent. Culminating in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, the Russian ‘special operation’ catalysed a wave of primarily politico-economic adjustments across Europe. Starting last autumn, especially the race for the French presidency seems to have been completely occupied by the war. Therefore, the unique position of the war in the campaign is arguably bothersome for the opposition candidates against the incumbent Emmanuel Macron that dominates the debate. Ending on the 24th April, the results will not be overlooked by European partners for the profound impacts and consequences on the European leadership, particularly at the time of the French presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Surprisal of Ukraine in an ordinary election struggle

The French presidential race, which was for long dominated by issues around Covid-19 pandemic and the high inflation rates caused by the post-pandemic recovery, includes numerous potentially strong candidates. Facing against the centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron, candidates such as the conservative Valérie Pécresse alongside the far right-wing Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour have all demonstrated robust opinion poll results during the campaign. On the other side of the political spectrum, the recent rise of left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon similarly can be a potent challenger for the incumbent. Following the primary round of 10th April, the two candidates will face each other in the second round two weeks later, on the 24th April.

In the pre-Ukraine war ‘era’, themes such as inflation, cost of living and inequalities dominated the discussion in France. However, the Russian invasion not only shocked the whole array of candidates but also forced them to adapt to the new foreign policy situation with new centres of focus. As largely discussed in foreign press, candidates such as Le Pen, Zemmour and Mélenchon have recently been at the forefront of criticism for their previous support for Vladimir Putin, highlighted for instance by Zemmour’s previous desires for a “French Putin” in an interview with L’Opinion in 2018.

Rally ‘round the flag’ effect: Macron as the winner of Ukrainian conflict

In terms of the impact of the war in Ukraine on the race, it is undoubtedly clear that Macron has taken a considerable advantage of it. This is notably seen by Macron’s extremely proactive stance in creating diplomatic solutions by visiting his Russian counterpart in Moscow. By consequence, as similarly seen in the United States, Macron arguably experiences a similar rally ‘round the flag’ effect as the US President George W. Bush enjoyed high popularity rates in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

However, as the tough international sanctions commence to hurt both the Russian and European economy, some opportunities seem to open up for presidential candidates. For instance, Marine Le Pen, who aims to brand herself as the candidate of “living standards”, has now further expanded her budget plans in order to protect French consumers and agricultural production from the hike of inflation and counter sanctions. When comparing the incumbent advantage of Macron in a time of European war to the slight opportunities of Le Pen, it seems unlikely that this opportunity of debate can be even compared to the near ‘monopoly’ of foreign policy discussion led by the incumbent Macron.

This Ukrainian war highlights more generally the long-existing divisions over French foreign policy towards Russia. For instance, candidates such as Mélenchon, Le Pen and Zemmour nearabout struggle to condemn Putin’s actions and merely wish to blame NATO’s enlargement in Eastern Europe as the cause of the conflict. This disagreement is not solely explained by the loans and funding received by French right-wing parties from Russia in recent years but also by the admiration for a ‘strong autocrat’ shown by such parties – consequently impacting their foreign policy stances.

Potential challenges to the co-operation within the EU in the post-election scenarios

The French presidential election, impacted by the war in Ukraine, will be closely analysed by European counterparts due to its significance for the future of Europe for many reasons. Firstly, in the potential victory by Mélenchon, Le Pen or Zemmour, French commitments both to the military structure of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to the long-term planning of a common European defence policy will be put in question in the name of protection of French sovereignty by such candidates. Secondly, although the probable case of Macron’s reelection victory on the 24th April could seem to guarantee the continuation of the ‘status quo’ of French foreign policy within and outside of the EU, the Ukrainian war will definitely impact the long-term trajectory of both France and the EU. It remains to be seen whether the Ukrainian war opens an opportunity for advancements in common European defence policy or whether it will further strengthen the European dependency for NATO security guarantee.

To conclude, the Ukrainian war complicates and shuffles both the ongoing French presidential campaign and possibly the European leadership. As analysed by domestic and foreign press, most probably Macron will outright benefit from the Ukrainian war from its robust authority over foreign policy, henceforth continuing for a second term as the French president. Nevertheless, independent from the final result on 24th April, it is clear that this Ukrainian conflict exposes French divisions over Russia as similarly all over Europe. 

Kuva: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images