Emmanuel Macron pushes far right to show its colours on Russia

French president puts Ukraine aid to parliamentary vote as his party targets Marine Le Pen’s vulnerability on Moscow

Emmanuel Macron has called for a parliamentary vote on France’s military support for Ukraine as he attempts to put the spotlight on the far right’s muddled positions on Russia.

Building on a series of hawkish interventions on European security ahead of EU elections, the French president’s move in effect forces both houses of parliament to take a stance on the country’s defence accord with Kyiv.

Macron’s gambit aims to remind voters of Marine Le Pen’s past proximity to Vladimir Putin in an attempt to blunt her surge in the polls, where her far-right Rassemblement National party is 12 points ahead of his centrist alliance.

“The debate aims to make all political parties accountable and unmask hypocrisies,” said Benjamin Haddad, an MP with Macron’s centrist Renaissance party. “The far right says they support Ukraine but that’s simply not true when you look at their record.”


The non-binding votes on Tuesday and Wednesday are also part of Macron’s change of tack on Ukraine, as he has grown increasingly vocal about the need for Europe to do more to stop Moscow from winning the war, especially as Kyiv faces setbacks on the battlefield and US support has dried up. He broke a taboo and was quickly rebuffed by Nato allies for saying last month that sending western troops to Ukraine “should not be ruled out”.

In France, the comments spooked the public, drew condemnation from across the political spectrum and triggered an intense debate about just how far France should go to help Ukraine.

Polls showed that 79 per cent of the public would oppose French troops fighting in Ukraine, but a slight majority of 52 per cent would support soldiers being sent to carry out support functions, according to an Elabe poll.

Among Macron voters, however, support has been growing for sending more military and economic aid to Ukraine, while Le Pen’s voters have dwindling backing for both measures, the polls shows.

Macron summoned the heads of the opposition parties last week to prepare the parliamentary debate and explain his stance that Ukraine needed “unconditional support” to ensure Russia did not win. “Faced with an enemy who sets no limits, we cannot afford to formulate any,” he told them.

Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s protégé and party chief leading the RN list for EU elections, said his party supported Ukraine. But he criticised Macron for allegedly erasing any “red lines” vis-à-vis Russia as “irresponsible and extremely dangerous for peace in the world”. The RN would not support the deployment of French troops nor Ukraine joining the EU, said Bardella.

Eric Ciotti, the conservative Les Republicains leader, said the troops proposal was a non-starter and accused Macron of attempting to confect a debate in an attempt to rescue his floundering European campaign.

Ministers have since clarified that Macron was referring to military personnel sent to Ukraine to help with demining, training or other logistical support, and not to fight in combat.

But the president stood by his comments and said Europe was “without a doubt facing a time when we cannot be cowardly”. Polish and Baltic officials have also signalled support for an increased western military presence in Ukraine, although not for combat.

Macron’s strategy was a big theme of his centrist alliance’s campaign launch in Lille on Saturday. In a fiery speech, prime minister Gabriel Attal slammed the “softness and weakness” of Le Pen’s party on Russia.

“Let us remember that they said they ‘admired’ Vladimir Putin ... refused to condemn the invasion of Crimea, and that for years, it was Russia that financed their party,” said Attal. “If it had been up to them,” he added, France would be providing “arms to Russia to crush the Ukrainians”.

In response, RN said Attal’s critique was nonsense, denied any softness on Russia and added that it had paid back a loan to a Russian bank. Ahead of the vote on Tuesday, Bardella said the RN would abstain and slammed Macron’s campaign for focusing on issues that were far from French people’s “daily priorities” such as “energy prices, crime and immigration”.

Macron’s military aid pact signed last month with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy earmarks €3 billion in aid this year. That is on par with the UK’s pledge to give £2.5 billion (€2.9 billion) this year, but far less than the €7.1 billion promised by Germany.

Like other bilateral pacts, it includes only carefully hedged language that supports Ukraine’s “European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, including towards European Union and Nato membership”, and nothing on troops.

On the eve of the vote, Zelenskiy sought to reassure the French public: “Your children are not going to die in Ukraine,” he told Le Monde newspaper. ”We are the ones paying the heaviest price.”

Ukraine’s Nato and EU bids, as well as Macron’s idea of increased “boots on the ground”, were likely to feature prominently in the parliamentary debate, making the vote hard to predict, according to an MP from Macron’s party.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at the Eurasia Group, questioned whether it was wise for Macron to put Ukraine support up for vote and make it such a big part of his European election pitch. “It could backfire,” he said. “Asking the hard questions about what the West is willing to do to support Ukraine is laudable, but it is not necessarily good politics.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily - Find the latest episode here