It is bordering on tasteless amidst the horror of war in Europe to question the political impact of the conflict on the first round of the French presidential election in 44 days. But it’s naïve to imagine that such thoughts are not occurring to the politicians themselves, not least Emmanuel Macron.
As I write this on Friday, Macron has still to declare his candidacy for the presidency. He’s been letting his opponents on the right and left fight it out amongst themselves for as long as possible.
He could declare tomorrow at the Salon d’Agriculture, where he is scheduled to make the customary presidential appearance. Or maybe not. Macron has preferred to campaign as president, not candidate, and the war gives him an ideal opportunity to divert attention from his presidential record, which isn’t great. He can do what he likes doing best – adopt the posture of global statesman. He can present himself as seeking to calm Vladimir Putin and standing well above the fray of domestic politics.
Macron’s operatives, confiding to his tame network BFMTV, speak now not of a blitzkrieg campaign, seeking to dominate the opposition by setting the agenda on reforms to education, security and (sotto voce) immigration. It will instead be a minimalist campaign, with the President casting himself as the leader not only of France but of Europe: a Gaullist answer to Merkel.
‘The campaign team was already having trouble preempting two days a week of the president's schedule to take him to meetings and gatherings. I don't know how they're going to do it now, the time of the campaign is likely to be counted in hours’, says a Macron aide.
This appears an audacious strategy because so far Macron seems not to have impressed Putin at all. After their meeting in Moscow, Macron claimed to have brokered a deal for a summit between Putin and Biden, with a seat at the table for Europe, that’s to say Macron. It never happened.
Putin let it be known that listening to Macron was akin to being tortured (millions of French voters agree) and treated him almost contemptuously.
Nevertheless, Macron has kept at it, phoning Putin, pleading for a cessation of hostilities, presiding over defence councils in his vast Parisian underground bunker, even announcing the French army is ready to defend Romania, one of numerous EU states bordering Ukraine.
Stalin asked how many divisions the Pope had. Tsar Vladimir might ask the same question of the EU. French troops are currently pulling out of Mali to avoid confronting Russian mercenaries. In the war with Islamists in Françafrique, Macron’s army couldn’t even hold Timbuktu.
Macron’s opponents now risk being starved of oxygen as the campaign is overshadowed by bigger events. Zemmour is accused of accepting Russian money for his campaign, which may be true, and doesn’t help. He’s still short of sponsorships. He’s under relentless attack by the media and by Macron’s spin doctors.
Marine Le Pen, who has also been supported by Russia in the past, has regained second place in the polls for round one, exactly where Macron wants her. She’s his preferred opponent in round two. His operatives utter not one negative word about her. The Républicain Valérie Pécresse is failing to set the electorate on fire and there are allegations that dead people and a dog voted in the primary that selected her.
All of these candidates are wetly pro-Russia, as indeed France has been, and not just since De Gaulle. The French habit of freelancing in foreign affairs has always meant that Paris tends to shun the more hawkish anti-Russian habits of Washington and Westminster. President Sarkozy tried to sell the Russians warships until the Americans stamped their feet, again over Ukraine, in 2014.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who perhaps yearns more for Stalin than Putin, is steady or gaining a little at just above 10 per cent in the polls, and attracting support from across the left including, amazingly, the former Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, as Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s red-green Socialist party campaign fades into irrelevance.
The existential factor undermining all of them is that amidst a war, all these figures seem rather irrelevant compared to Macron.
Those in London and Washington sneering at Macron’s seemingly clumsy efforts might overlook how this might play electorally for the president. Macron can claim at least to be trying, at least (in the absence of Merkel) to be leading Europe. And if there’s a ceasefire or a deal, he’ll claim credit.
This, he seems convinced, along with declaring victory over Covid in March and suppressing the unloved vaccination passports, will get him over the finish line and a new lease on the Elysée, without the inconvenience of speaking to actual voters, inordinate numbers of whom unkindly boo and hiss him wherever he goes.