Forbidden love: Vladimir Putin and the French far right

In the first of a three-part series, Marwan Bishara examines Le Pen’s rise in the polls despite her love for the European pariah.

The far right in Europe has long been infatuated with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, with its leaders calling him “a true patriot” and “defender of European values”, even “the best statesman currently on earth”.

They may seem like strange bedfellows in a marriage of convenience, but they are more than that – they are in love, albeit a forbidden love, now that Putin has become a pariah in European capitals.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned European leaders against Putin, but its effect on the far right has thus far been negligible, no less in France, which will hold the first round of its presidential elections on Sunday.

French opposition leader Marine Le Pen, the de facto spokesperson of the European far right, has been rising in the polls despite her ongoing support and admiration for the Russian leader.

It is almost certain she will make it to the second round, with recent polls showing that she is closing the gap on incumbent President Emmanuel Macron.

And this is not the first time her numbers have improved despite her relationship with Putin.

In 2014, Le Pen endorsed the Kremlin’s referendum in the Russian-annexed Crimea as legitimate and has been accused of being a Putin stooge. In 2015, reports in the French press based on hacked Kremlin records showed that Le Pen may have lent her support to Putin’s annexation in return for a nine million euro ($9.9m) loan from a Russian bank – although the allegations of a quid pro quo have never been proved.

Despite all this, however, Le Pen continued to rise in the polls and qualified for the second round of the 2017 presidential elections. In the runoff, she almost doubled the numbers her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, reached in the 2002 runoff, receiving 34 percent of the vote. And if the polls are anything to go by, she may well triple them in 2022.

Two decades ago, France was so utterly shocked by a far-right candidate making it to the second round of the presidential election that Le Pen senior’s success led a “scandalised” majority to unite behind the incumbent, Jacque Chirac. Today, hardly anyone is shocked or surprised by Marine Le Pen going head-to-head with the incumbent Macron for a second time.

Le Pen has supported Putin since taking over her father’s party in 2011. And while she may have tactically distanced herself from Putin after he “crossed a red line” by invading Ukraine, a sovereign European nation, she has only “partly changed” her mind about the Russian leader.

The same goes for the more extreme far-right presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour, who in 2018 had wished for a “French Putin” – one who could stand up to the intellectual elites and reverse France’s decline. He may have condemned the Russian invasion, but he also claimed that “if Putin is guilty, the West is responsible” for the Ukraine war.

These two far-right candidates are about to receive the support of almost one-third of the French electorate, well above the expected support for Macron in the first round.

So, what is it then that attracted the far right to Putin? And why does Le Pen continue to climb in the polls despite her long association and flirtation with the infamous pariah?

The French far-right longs to see Putin’s blend of authoritarian nationalism, social conservatism, and Christian tradition across Europe, and believes that European capitals have abandoned all that in favour of the “monstrous European Union”, social liberalism, and unfettered immigration, notably from Muslim countries.

Le Pen shares the same worldview as Putin and Trump: She believes a great nation does what it must – albeit at times brutal – to be great.

And like Putin and Trump, she exploits the vulnerabilities of working-class families, who feel aggrieved by job and personal insecurity as well as economic and social marginalisation – blaming liberalism, globalisation and immigration for their misfortunes.

A remarkable study about voting patterns in the Paris region in 2017 has shown that the closer and more connected people are to Paris by train, the more likely they were to vote for Macron, and those farthest and least connected voted in their majority for Le Pen, with noticeable change every five kilometres.

That segment of the population, which relies mostly on private transportation, produced the popular gilets jaunes uprising (the yellow vests) in 2018, which protested aggressively against higher fuel prices, economic hardship, mounting inequality and the political establishment while sneering at the environmental liberals.

For the majority of French voters, Macron’s domestic “failures” outweigh his European and international pretensions. Like other Europeans, the French voters are driven mostly by domestic, not foreign, preoccupations. And when they say “anyone but Macron” it could well be a de facto vote for the far-right anti-establishment candidates.

These populist candidates have turned anger into an art form; lamenting a “soulless”, “suicidal” France in decline. Their gloom and doom have infected some 75 percent of the French population, who believe that France’s decline is irreversible, even when, paradoxically, 78 percent of them say they are content as the economy rebounds and unemployment falls.

The discrepancy lies mostly in the unfortunate and dangerous politics of peddling Islamophobia, as Macron and the right blame Islam and Muslims for the French social displacement and decline.

With only a week to the elections, Macron has warned the French against a far-right victory in case of a low turnout, declaring the alternative to his re-election is fascism.

It is an unfortunate ultimatum for a diverse nation so rich in talents and ideas.

And yet, though France may desire and deserve better leadership than “Macron and Macronism”, it will not find prosperity and security in a French-like Putin or Putinism.

A subject worth expanding on next.