PARIS — The capital of France may be thousands of miles away from the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, but what happens in French voting stations this month could have repercussions there.
Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has close ties to Russia and wants to weaken the European Union and NATO, which could undercut Western efforts to stop Russia’s war on Ukraine. Le Pen is trying to unseat centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who has a slim lead in polls ahead of France’s April 24 presidential runoff election.
Here are some of the ways the French election could impact the war in Ukraine:
Macron’s government has sent 100 million euros worth of weaponry to Ukraine in recent weeks and said Wednesday it will send more as part of a Western military aid effort. France has been a major source of military support for Ukraine since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 from Ukraine and supported separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Le Pen expressed reservations Wednesday about supplying Ukraine with additional arms. She said, if she were elected president, she would continue defense and intelligence aid but would be “prudent” about sending weapons because she thinks the shipments could suck other countries into the war with Russia.
Le Pen’s campaign has successfully tapped into French voter frustration over rising inflation, which has worsened as a consequence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and the ensuing Western sanctions against Russia, a major gas supplier and trade partner for France and Europe.
The European Union has been unusually unified in agreeing on five rounds of ever-tougher sanctions against Russia. If she became France’s president, Le Pen could try to thwart or limit additional EU sanctions since further action requires unananimous backing from the bloc’s 27 member nations.
France is the EU’s No. 2 economy after Germany and key to EU decision-making. France also now holds the rotating EU presidency, giving France’s next leader significant influence.
Le Pen is notably opposed to sanctions on Russian gas and oil. She also said in the past that she would work to lift sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea, and even recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
Earlier in his first term, Macron tried reaching out to Putin, inviting him to Versailles and a presidential resort on the Mediterranean, in hopes of bringing Russia’s policies back into greater alignment with the West.
The French president also sought to revive peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv over the long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine between the government and Russia-backed separatists. Macron visited Putin at the Kremlin weeks before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and has continued talking to the Russian leader during the war. At the same time, Macron has supported multiple rounds of EU sanctions.
Le Pen’s party has deep ties to Russia. She met with Putin as a French presidential candidate in 2017 and has praised him in the past. She is warmly welcomed at Russian Embassy events in Paris, and her far-right party also got a 9 million-euro ($9.8 million) loan from a Russian-Czech bank because she said French banks refused to lend the party money.
Le Pen says the war in Ukraine has partly changed her mind about Putin, but she said Wednesday that the West should try to restore relations with Russia once the conflict ends. She suggested a “strategic rapprochement” between NATO and Russia to keep Moscow from allying too closely with China.
WEAKENING NATO AND THE EU
While Macron is a staunch defender of the EU and recently reinforced France’s participation in NATO operations in Eastern Europe, Le Pen says France should keep its distance from international alliances and strike its own path.
She favors pulling France out of NATO’s military command, which would take French military staff out of the body that plans operations and lead to the country losing influence within the Western military alliance.
France withdrew from NATO’s command structure in 1966, when French President Charles de Gaulle wanted to distance his country from the U.S.-dominated organization, and reintegrated under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009.
If it were up to her, Le Pen would reduce French spending on the EU and try to diminish the EU’s influence by chipping away at the bloc from within while no longer recognizing that European law has primacy over national law.