Global Europe Brief: France’s Russian roulette

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In this week’s edition: French foreign policy woes, Ukraine latest and Nordic NATO aspirations.


Next to a hesitant Berlin, Paris has emerged as Europe’s de facto foreign policy leader in Europe once Angela Merkel left the political stage. Consequently, French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe’s chief statesman.

Although he is expected to come out on top in the first round of the French presidential elections this Sunday (10 April), the latest polls suggest it could be a close call between him and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in a potential run-off in two weeks’ time.

Foreign policy usually doesn’t play a huge role in France’s presidential elections.

But more and more observers suggest the French leader’s strategy of being more of a wartime president than a domestically-oriented candidate in this election campaign has likely backfired, effectively helping Le Pen.

Not to mention that the emergence of far-right Eric Zemour further helped Le Pen, positioning her as the more moderate candidate on the right. 

Besides Macron’s adventurous goals of pursuing the interests of France in the Middle East and Africa, and dreams of European strategic autonomy, his initiatives have rarely gone beyond glittery statements.

The COVID-19 crisis came at the right moment to validate Macron’s plea for a more integrated EU policy. And Russia’s war in Ukraine favoured his push for European defence and strategic autonomy, though under a slightly different interpretation.

Macron had been “visionary, but with results that did not match his ambitions”, deputy director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), Jean-Pierre Maulny, told EURACTIV, listing more missed opportunities than victories for the French president’s term.

Over the past few years, Macron has gambled that reaching out to Moscow can make Europe less dependent on the US.

His policy of outreach and phone diplomacy with Vladimir Putin, an approach Macron has defended not only in recent weeks but repeatedly over the years since taking office, has raised eyebrows with many across the bloc, but especially in Eastern Europe.

Thinking that Putin will be seduced by this dialogue into a ‘reset’ is naïve and dangerous, many EU diplomats have said, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Europe was absent in January when the Russians sent their draft treaty to the Americans,” Maulny said, adding that “when Macron went to Moscow, he should have gone together with Scholz, not one after the other”, thus representing a French rather than European approach.

French officials, meanwhile, argue that Macron’s policy is less controversial than portrayed and is more than a mere bilateral exercise.

Though looking at the past few weeks, French newspapers didn’t rate kindly Macron’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis, especially after he was repeatedly cold-shouldered by Putin.

How does that play out domestically?

Macron’s effort was a ‘diplomatic humiliation’, the main headline in Le Monde read the day after the two presidents spoke on the phone for nearly two hours in February. France24, meanwhile, summed up his foreign policy endeavour by calling him an ‘impotent negotiator’.

Macron for sure could have done without the public humiliation, since it opened the door to criticism from the right, left, and centre.

In France, there is a tradition of sympathising with Russia. The two far-right leaders have spoken admiringly of Putin’s nationalist approach, in Zemmour’s case even longing for a “French Putin”.

Meanwhile, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon pleaded for France’s “non-alignment” in the Ukrainian standoff, saying: “The Russians must not cross Ukraine’s borders, which must be respected, and the Americans must not annex Ukraine into NATO.”

But it is also true that the French right, with sympathies for Putin’s strongman leadership, has a long history of losing at the Russian roulette. This time around, they seem to have gotten better at spinning the wheel in their favour.

“Iran, Lebanon, Mali, the Australian submarine disaster (…) they were all supposed to boost France. They all turned out to be knives in the back,” his right-wing challenger Valérie Pécresse said.

Le Pen, meanwhile, has quietly but efficiently run a classic on-the-ground election campaign in small towns and villages across France, focusing on domestic issues – and performed some U-turns when it comes to foreign policy positions.

Her ultra-pragmatic, vote-seeking approach to foreign matters was best seen just after Russia invaded Ukraine, when she tried to do everything to hide her proximity to Putin and Moscow.

Once her advisors realised that public opinion towards Russia was dropping, they attempted to prevent the circulation of 1.2 million election pamphlets featuring Le Pen shaking hands with Putin.

The eight-page leaflet included a picture of Putin meeting with Le Pen in Moscow in 2017, together with the caption “a woman of conviction”, a visual that hasn’t aged well.

Although Le Pen ultimately condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, she still opposes sanctions against Moscow and rejects an energy ban on Russian oil and gas. Her main argument is the implication such a move could have on French purchasing power, her flagship “priority” in this election.

Nonna Mayer, a specialist in the Front National electorate, told France24: “Ms. Le Pen has turned a disadvantage to her advantage, by making people forget everything else”.

Just days before the Russian invasion, Le Pen repeated her pledge to pull France out of NATO’s integrated command. Closer to the polls, she backtracked on those calls, arguing that it would be better to wait until the war in Ukraine was over.

“It doesn’t make sense, either we withdraw from NATO or we don’t,” Maulny commented the back-and-forth.

The two election rounds in France will show whether foreign policy ambition pays any dividend at home, or whether Macron would have been better off tailoring his vision and ambition more to the needs and wishes of his electorate.

But for all his shortcomings, he would certainly be the better choice for the future of Europe’s foreign policy.

– Mathieu Pollet contributed to this report.


UKRAINE LATEST

  • EU resumes diplomatic presence in Kyiv. The EU will resume its diplomatic presence in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, after temporarily moving it to Poland after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • EU funds to help Ukraine refugees are insufficient, frontline countries warn. Frontline EU countries receiving Ukrainian refugees are warning that the bloc’s current approach of loosening rules that govern structural fund spending in order to finance the influx of those fleeing the war will be insufficient in the long run.
  • Russia and China align on war disinformation, EU service says. Beijing is pushing narratives about the war in Ukraine, in many cases amplifying Russian disinformation, according to the EU’s foreign policy body.
  • Ukraine war revives EastMed gas pipe talks but EU insists on feasibility. Europe’s new push for diversification from Russia’s energy has revived talks about a pipeline bringing natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Greece and the rest of south-east Europe. However, the European Commission still insists on the EastMed pipeline’s commercial viability before giving its final blessing.
  • EU foresees rise in grain exports to plug Ukrainian wheat global gap. In the next two years, the European Commission estimates a 30% increase in exports of cereals to mitigate the impact on global markets of the reduced Ukrainian yield due to the war.

EU IN THE WORLD

FAC PREVIEW | As part of a fifth sanctions package, EU member states earlier this week green-lighted an embargo on Russian coal and the closing of the bloc’s ports to Russian vessels over Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

According to EU diplomats, the vast majority of countries remain determined to increase pressure on Russia, including moving on an embargo on imports of oil and gas.

But as foreign ministers are set to meet in Luxembourg attention has already shifted to who may stand in the way of possible future energy sanctions.

They are expected to sign off on an additional third top-up of €500 million for the European Peace Facility for Ukraine and hold an exchange of views with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan.

Also on the agenda: A lunch with non-EU Nordics Norway and Iceland, likely on energy security, the security woes in Mali and Libya, Global Gateway in the aftermath of the EU-China summit, as well as on how to strengthen cooperation with the Western Balkans.

TURKISH COMPLAINT | Turkey’s leaders have recently increased talk about their will to return to the negotiating table with Brussels. More in EURACTIV’s interview with Faruk Kaymakcı, Turkey’s deputy minister of foreign affairs and director for EU affairs.

TUNISIA SLIDE | “There is a high level of public fear,” Ahmed Gaaloul, a former minister from the Ennahda party and current advisor to Speaker Rachid Ghannouchi, told EURACTIV, as Tunisia’s fragile democracy faces growing threats from an increasingly autocratic President.

TENSIONS EASE | The leaders of Spain and Morocco announced a new phase in bilateral relations at the conclusion of talks that marked the end of a nearly year-long diplomatic chill between the two nations.

DEFENCE CORNER

ARCTIC GAP | The war in Ukraine has brought back the awareness that NATO’s Achilles heel in Europe is Poland’s Suwałki corridor, which cuts across the only link between Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus. However, from a security point of view, there is another strategic gap to fill.

A possible NATO membership of Sweden and Finland is increasingly backed by Nordic Conservatives. But worries mount that Hungary’s newly re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orbán could stand in the way of NATO aspirations or ask NATO or the EU for something in return for his support.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

SPILLOVER WORRIES | The German government has warned of Russia’s destabilisation strategies, possibly challenging peace and stability in the Western Balkan region, most notably in the already dysfunctional Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

VUCIC VICTORY | The outcome of the Serbian elections was in line with most expectations, but the interesting part is in the details.

EURASIA DIGEST

NEXT ROUND | Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to peace talks to address tensions over the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which borders both nations as the talks host EU said it hoped the discussions would serve as the first step in a durable peace.


WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 


ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…

  • French presidential election (first round)
    | Sunday, 10 April 2022 | France
  • Breakaway region South Ossetia holds leadership vote
    | Sunday, 10 April 2022 | Tskhinvali, Georgia
  • Foreign Affairs Council on Ukraine/Russia, Global Gateway
    | Monday, 11 April 2022 | Luxembourg
  • UN Security Council meets on Ukraine
    | Monday, 11 April 2022 | New York, United States
  • Five central European foreign ministers meet on Ukraine, Covid
    | Tuesday, 12 April 2022 | Prague, Czech Republic
  • European affairs ministers meet
    | Tuesday, 12 April 2022 | Luxembourg
  • European Space Agency Council holds extraordinary session
    | Wednesday, 13 April 2022 | Paris, France

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