The extreme right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen appeals to the worst instincts of French voters: distrust, fear and hatred. These converge in a foreign policy that would distance France from its allies, isolate Paris and strip it of influence.
The word “stateswoman” is emblazoned across a portrait of Le Pen wearing a dark suit on her campaign poster. In a tawdry imitation of the ambassadors’ conference held annually by French presidents, she delivered an hour-long address on foreign policy, seated above her audience on a stage, surrounded by microphones, at the Salons Hoche conference hall on April 13th.
"I repeat it, without ambiguity," Le Pen said in her gravelly voice. "When I am elected president, I will leave the integrated command [of Nato] but I will not renounce article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty." Article 5 is a one-for-all, all-for-one commitment by Nato members to defend any Nato state that is attacked.
The policy is apparently intended to revive folk memories of President Charles de Gaulle's decision to pull out of Nato's integrated command in 1966. Nicolas Sarkozy reversed the decision in 2009.
But in the spring of 2022, when Nato is all that stands between Russia and its former vassal states in the Baltics and eastern Europe, the proposal comes across as tone deaf and out of sync with reality.
On the same day, the female prime ministers of Sweden and Finland held a press conference in Stockholm to say that their neutral countries were considering joining the alliance, because Russia's invasion of Ukraine had changed Europe's "whole security landscape".
Le Pen’s programme says her foreign policy will be “independent” and make of France “a balancing power between the two great blocks”. She parrots de Gaulle’s 1960s rhetoric from the depth of a time warp, all the more grotesque because her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was a sworn enemy of de Gaulle.
In the most remarked upon quotation of Le Pen's foreign policy discourse, she called for a "strategic rapprochement between Nato and Russia as soon as the Russian-Ukrainian war has been resolved by a peace treaty". It was important to "anchor Russia to Europe" to prevent it developing closer ties with China, she argued.
Rapprochement with Russia
Not only is a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine nowhere in sight, Macron used the same words to justify his pre-war dialogue with Russia. Le Pen stole the incumbent president’s vocabulary, then advocated a rapprochement with Russia as if one could ignore the atrocities of Bucha, Kramatorsk and Mariupol, as if the war in Ukraine were a mere parenthesis.
"What planet is she on?" asked Le Monde editorialist Alain Frachon.
"We must restore the singular place of France in the world," Le Pen declared, again turning reality on its head. She dismissed Macron's excellent working relationship with Germany as "French blindness regarding Berlin" and promised to "replace Emmanuel Macron's open, chatterbox diplomacy with secret, efficacious diplomacy".
Macron has forged bonds with most of the world's leaders. Le Pen's only allies are the nationalist populist leaders of Hungary and Poland. She has momentarily put her friendship with Vladimir Putin on hold but makes no secret of wanting to revive it when the war ends. In an apparent attempt to give herself the stature of an international stateswoman, Le Pen included a photograph of herself with Putin in a campaign leaflet printed shortly before the invasion of Ukraine.
At a campaign rally in Avignon on Thursday night, Le Pen asked supporters to help her overthrow Macron's "oligarchy". It was a ludicrous statement from a candidate who is paying off a €9.4 million loan to the Russian company Aviazaptchast, which is reportedly owned by a Russian arms dealer who is close to the Kremlin and possesses an apartment near the Arc de Triomphe.
Le Pen's past praise for Putin is used against her. In March 2017, she told BBC Newsnight: "The Russians must like Vladimir Putin's government for him to be re-elected so regularly." She admired Donald Trump too. "The main policies I defend are the policies defended by Mr Trump. They are also defended by Mr Putin," she said.
Each time Le Pen is challenged over her ties to Putin, she notes that Macron lavishly received the Russian dictator at Versailles and at the president’s summer residence at Brégançon.
One may have cringed at Macron’s warm welcome for Putin, but it was not comparable to Le Pen going to Moscow with her begging bowl. She is certainly Putin’s best hope of sowing discord in the EU and Nato, which he sees as major economic and military threats to Russia.
Macron was an elected leader attempting to tame a dangerous ruler. Le Pen must be suspected of having ulterior motives. She says she opposes sanctions on Russian gas and petrol because the French consumer suffers for them. Is that the real reason? Or is she doing her benefactor a favour?
The Front National, the Le Pen family political franchise which Le Pen renamed Rassemblement National in 2018, is riddled with debt, to the tune of €25 million, according to her niece Marion Maréchal.
Le Pen has rescheduled her €9.4 million debt to the Russian company Aviazaptchast until 2028. French candidates are no longer allowed to borrow money from non-European banks, so in February of this year, Le Pen’s party confirmed it borrowed another €10.6 million from an unnamed Hungarian bank. RN officials refused to say if prime minister Viktor Orbán was instrumental in securing that loan.
When Orbán was re-elected at the beginning of this month, Le Pen tweeted a photograph of herself with him, over the words: “Congratulations to Viktor Orbán for his overwhelming victory in legislative elections in Hungary. When the people vote, the people win!”
Le Pen denounced Macron for having used what she called "needlessly insulting" language about her Hungarian and Polish allies. Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki criticised Macron for negotiating with Putin. Macron struck back, calling Morawiecki "an extreme right-wing anti-Semite who bans LGBT people".
Speaking about Europe in Strasbourg on Tuesday night, Macron said Le Pen’s alliance with Orbán and Morawiecki “will be a strange club, not good for France, not good for Europe”.
It is hard to see how the EU could withstand a Le Pen victory on April 24th. Macron calls the election “a referendum on Europe”.
Le Pen thinks Europe is ripping off France, so she would reduce the French contribution to the EU budget by €5 billion. Her plan to nationalise French environmental policy would kill the EU’s Green Deal. She refers to recent incidents of food intoxication to justify her plan to re-establish customs controls at French borders. She would ban the import of food that could be produced in France, and change the French constitution to ensure that French law takes precedence over European regulations.
Macron says Le Pen’s policies prove that she still wants to leave the union, though she no longer dares say so. He told Le Point magazine he will put “all [his] energy” into “casting light on the truth” of Le Pen’s programme. It is, he says, a “plan of submission to foreign powers, a plan to leave Europe, a plan to divide the French”.
The dispute between Le Pen and Macron over French foreign policy will continue in a televised debate next Wednesday night.