A version of this article was published on the Bear Market Brief’s website.
It was a nice gift from Moscow. On the 24th of March, the leader of the French far-right party “Front National” and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen met with Vladimir Putin for an hour and a half in the Kremlin, a mere one month before the first round of the presidential election.
The meeting wasn’t expected: Le Pen had come to Russia at the invitation of a Russian MP, and the agenda was focused on committee meetings at the Duma. There, Russian and foreign journalists were left waiting an hour for a press conference that never came, while Le Pen was sneaking to the Kremlin to meet with Putin. A selected few Russian TV channels were there to cover the meeting, which later featured extensively on Russian and international media.
Marine Le Pen had been chasing this kind of high-profile meeting for some time already: in January, she was seen drinking coffee in the lobby of Trump Tower in New-York, in a move largely described as a failed attempt to meet with the soon-to-be president of the United States, Donald Trump.
Meeting with foreign heads of state is a traditionally important part of a presidential campaign in France (it is supposed to show one’s ‘“international stature”), but Le Pen’s controversial reputation has always made this difficult, making her meeting with Putin all the more significant.
A MESSY CAMPAIGN
Experts have described the meeting has an indication that Moscow has lost faith in the ability of François Fillon, the mainstream’s right candidate and a proponent of stronger ties with Russia, to secure the victory in the elections.
Fillon used to be the favourite in the race until accusations of misuse of public funds (which culminated with a formal investigation being opened) lead to his fall in the polls.
With prospects of Fillon making it to the second tour seriously fading, Moscow, it seems, is putting its weight behind the far-right candidate. Le Pen is in good place to win the first round, though all polls see her being beaten in the second round, no matter the opponent.
Interestingly enough, the same analysis played in reverse a few weeks ago: when news broke out in January that the Russian Bank Deposit Insurance Agency was asking the National Front party to repay a €9m loan, many analysts interpreted it as Moscow dropping support for Le Pen, preferring the more stable and experienced François Fillon.
Moscow seems to have, like everyone else, been caught off-guard by the unpredictability of the French presidential campaign. It sometimes played for the best for Russia, such as when Alain Juppé, the favourite in the primaries of the right Republicans party and a critic of Putin, was unexpectedly beaten by the much more Moscow-friendly François Fillon.
This is when, analysts believe, Moscow first switched support: while not as enthusiastically pro-Kremlin as Le Pen, Fillon enjoys personal ties with Putin, who described him as an “upstanding person”, and called for closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against terrorism. Moreover, at the time, Fillon was facing a Socialist party in disarray and seemed poised to win.
The unlikely rise of centrist Emmanuel Macron was less welcomed, and the candidate of the young “Forward” movement was specifically targeted by Russia-controlled outlets RT and Sputnik. Macron’s party also claimed to have been the target of Russia-backed hackers, though this was met with skepticism : attribution is notoriously hard in this kind of situation, but Macron’s campaign team did not bring forward any clear indications of a Moscow-directed attack. So far, no “leaks” has been made public.
THE QUEST TO BECOME MAINSTREAM
Putin meeting with Le Pen a month before the elections is the clearest show of support the far-right candidate could have ever hoped, but it’s not exactly clear what Putin is hoping to accomplish with this meeting.
The most obvious explanation would be that Moscow is trying to help Le Pen win the election.
Russian outlet Lenta argued that by meeting Le Pen, Putin was making the far-right candidate more appealing to French centrist voters, a key target to secure the victory. This seems, to put it mildly, debatable: Putin remains a very divisive figure in France, with supporters found mostly among hardline leftists (who often see Moscow as a good counterbalance to Washington’s “imperialist” policies) and on the right side of the political spectrum.
It’s difficult to imagine a French centrist voter, typically the most supportive of the European Union, the most scared by the prospect of leaving the eurozone and the most critical of Russia, becoming more likely to support Le Pen because she met with Putin.
If anything, Le Pen’s trip to Moscow is more likely to sway to her side Fillon supporters disillusioned by the judicial affairs surrounding him. A good part of those voters support Le Pen’s anti-immigration and anti-EU platform and often wish for closer ties with Russia, but favoured Fillon because of his image as an honest and sober politician.
With this image now in ruins, and Le Pen trumped by Putin as representing part of a “quickly developing spectrum of European political forces”, those voters could feel like Le Pen is now a safe choice.
It may not be enough though : the latest polls see Macron comfortably beating Le Pen with 62% of the vote (38% for Le Pen) in a second round. Polls have been wrong before of course, and the share of undecided voters is unusually large, but the margin is wide.
But even if Le Pen loses, by meeting with her, Vladimir Putin secured her position as Europe’s figurehead of the far-right movement.
For years, Marine Le Pen has been trying to turn the National Front into a mainstream political force, scrapping it of its most controversial (read: antisemitic) elements and softening its tone, from outright xenophobia to a more bland “economic nationalism”.
This “dédiabolisation” (“de-demonization”) strategy, which lead to former leader Jean Marie Le Pen being excluded from the party for stating that gas chambers in WWII were “a detail of History” (the decision was later overturned by a French court), has allowed the National Front to grow from a fringe, extremist organization to a party able to lead the polls in a presidential election. At the same time, Marine Le Pen definitely steered away from the anti-communist and pro-Washington views of her father to embrace a consistent pro-Kremlin line.
Le Pen’s meeting with the Russian president can be seen both as the result and a further boost to this strategy: Vladimir Putin not only acknowledges Le Pen’s new status, he also brings her a new layer of legitimacy, on an international scale this time, that could strengthen her role on the European scene and help promote the exact agenda that Moscow has been trying to get across.
President or not, Le Pen is set to remain a shaping force in French and European politics, and Russia knows it.