Ukraine war serves as backdrop to France’s presidential elections

Macron has won praise for playing a mediating role, while Le Pen has turned against Putin and embraced refugees.

Paris, France – In the basement of the Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris, piles of clothes, shoes, and toys are neatly laid out. Tables are topped with non-perishable foods, feminine hygiene care, and medicine kits. Volunteers quietly hover by the stalls, speaking in hushed tones.

This donation drive, held every Saturday and Wednesday, is for Ukrainian refugees who have fled Russia’s war on their country, which began on February 24.

To date, 30,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in France, and housing minister Emmanuelle Wargon has announced that the government is preparing to host nearly 100,000.

Ludmila, a French-Ukrainian artist and real estate worker, volunteers at the church and said that each week, she sees more refugees.

“Last Saturday, 276 refugees came here,” she said. “Initially, we held the drive at the Ukrainian church, Saint Volodymyr, just a couple streets over, but we were overwhelmed with the response and quickly ran out of space.”

Outside, a line of Ukrainian refugees are waiting patiently. Inna is at the front, watching her two young daughters flit in and out of the doorway.

“We left Ukraine one week after the war began,” she said. “There were a lot of air sirens and explosions around us. It took us three days on the train to get to Paris from where we were living in Zaporizhzhia.”

Inna, a teacher, left behind her husband and 23-year-old son, as Ukraine has banned fighting-age men from leaving the country.

She arrived at Porte de Versailles, an exhibition centre-turned-refugee shelter in Paris, along with 600 other Ukrainians.

After spending a night there, they were all taken to a hotel, where they have been living since, awaiting.

“The French have provided us with all the necessities: food, medicine, clothes,” she said. “We are very grateful to the French people, they are so hospitable.”

Macron on a pedestal

The Ukraine war has featured as a backdrop to the French presidential elections, of which the first round will be held on Sunday.

According to a French poll held days after the invasion began, 88 percent said they were shocked and a majority were “very worried”.

The war has affected most presidential front-runners, with analysts saying Emmanuel Macron, who has consistently led the race, is benefitting from the “rallying round the flag” phenomenon.

The president has been involved in shuttle diplomacy, holding several rounds of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“Macron has always perceived the role of chief of state as [that of] a historic European leader,” Bruno Cautres, a researcher at Cevipof Sciences Po, told Al Jazeera.

“He is sending us a message that if he’s re-elected, there will be an important measure of political, defence, and security, and energy independence from the European Union at the centre of his next term.”

Macron appeared to have unified the three positions he is currently holding – as French president, a presidential candidate, and the president of the Council of the European Union – into one.

“Through his activities as the president of the EU council in the management of the Ukrainian war, he is sending us a message that he is an ambitious presidential candidate, a reformer, that is active on the European scene,” Cautres explained.

Regarding crisis management, Macron has shown he is able to offer solutions, he added.

Tristan Guerre, political analyst at Sciences Po Grenoble, said Macron’s actions resonate with what voters expect of him.

“France has a long tradition of being a mediator in important international conflicts,” he said. “Macron is perpetuating this diplomatic role France has, which is great for his public image. He chose to portray his leadership on the international stage instead of solidly campaigning for his re-election.”

Macron held his first major campaign rally last Saturday, and unlike the other candidates, did not take participate in a televised national debate a few weeks ago.

“The Ukraine war has propelled him into a new stratosphere – the statesman level,” Guerre said. “He’s been placed on a pedestal, but that could also put him at a disadvantage, as he is not addressing the concerns that people have, mainly on the [domestic] economic front, such as purchasing power and the cost of living.”

Shuffling the deck on candidates

The Ukraine war has also benefitted far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who – with the rise of energy prices – has reoriented her campaign to focus primarily on the issue of purchasing power.

In recent days, polls have suggested she may be closing in on Macron.

“The war in Ukraine has been essential to understanding this election because it has either shuffled the deck or deepened the dynamics and differences of the candidates,” Guerre said.

In the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections, in which she ultimately lost to Macron in a second round, Le Pen travelled to Moscow, met Putin and posed for photographs with the Russian president in the Kremlin.

In 2014, she expressed support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and in the same year presided over a nine million euro ($9.8m) loan from a Russian bank to finance her party’s election campaigns.

Today, things are different.

She has distanced herself from Putin, even speaking of “war crimes” after the discovery of bodies in Bucha outside Ukraine. She has also welcomed Ukrainian refugees into the country, in stark contrast to far-right candidate Eric Zemmour, whose ratings dropped after he refused to budge from his fierce anti-immigration stance.

Welcoming Ukrainians in France is “a sign of a certain unity in France, and not a divisive one”, Guerre said, adding that Zemmour’s position has alienated some of his support base, who equate anti-immigration with anti-Islam and back Ukrainian refugees entering the country.

Zemmour wants to keep Ukrainian refugees in Poland or neighbouring countries, and while he said that Ukrainians with French connections should be allowed to stay in France on visas, he warned that an “emotional response” risked a flood of refugees across Europe.

“His decrease in the polls matched his open declaration of admiration and support for Putin,” Cautres said. “Saying that France needs Putin, and that Putin is the one being harassed obviously didn’t help him.”

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon has also been criticised for his views on Russia.

While he has condemned Putin’s actions in Ukraine as “pure violence”, his controversial stance regarding international relations has been scrutinised, particularly his calls on France to adopt a position of non-alignment.

Back at the church, Ludmila feels grateful for Macron’s position and the French welcome for Ukrainian refugees.

But as Sunday approaches, she is worried that voters may choose Le Pen.

“Marine Le Pen said a few weeks ago that she is siding with Ukraine,” she said. “Yet, ever since I moved here 20 years ago, I’ve only seen her talking about how she admires Putin. I don’t know what is going to happen.”