In a televised debate last night (24 November) French conservative frontrunner François Fillon said Russia must be anchored to Europe, or else Moscow would couple with China, to the detriment of the continent.
The debate was largely seen as the last chance for Alain Juppé, who came second in the first round of the primary elections of the conservatives last Sunday, to impress the conservative electorate and catch up on Fillon ahead of the 27 November run-off.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy crashed out of the presidential election last night (20 November), suffering a humiliating defeat in the first round of the centre-right primary.
The one-and-a-half hour debate was generally uncontroversial. One of the rare contentious exchanges was when Juppé questioned Fillon’s perceived closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin knew Fillon when they were both prime ministers. In an unusual televised appearance the Russian president praised him Wednesday as a “great professional” and a “very principled person”.
“This must be the first presidential election in which the Russian president chooses his candidate,” Juppé said.
Fillon brushed off Putin’s comments but said the West must work more closely with Russia at a time when relations are at their worst since the Cold War.
“Russia is a dangerous country if we treat it as we have treated it for the last five years,” Fillon said. He said the real danger to Europe was not Russia but the economic threat of “the Asian continent”.
Fillon argued that Russia should be anchored to Europe geopolitically or risk seeing Moscow forge alliances with China instead. He called “absurd” the hardline policy of French President François Hollande with regard to Russia, saying it only made Moscow harden its positions and exacerbate its nationalist reflexes.
The French conservative frontrunner said the EU would not change alliances and would not abandon its transatlantic link, but added that Paris didn’t need the permission from Washington to talk to Moscow.
“What I am asking is that we sit down at a table with the Russians without asking for the agreement of the United States and that we re-establish a link, if not a relation based on confidence, which will make it possible to anchor Russia to Europe.”
That echoes Moscow’s message to Brussels. In a rare get-together of think-tankers in Brussels, members of Russia’s ‘Valdai Club’ recently suggested that the only way for “little Europe” to maintain its relevance is to abandon its hostile policy toward Russia.
On Russia, Juppé’s positions can be described as closer to those of Hollande.
According to snap opinion polls after the debate, Fillon emerged as a clear winner. He is widely tipped to become the next president of France, with polls showing he would likely face and defeat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a run-off on 7 May 2017.