At the time it probably felt like a good idea for Marine Le Pen’s campaign team. A photo of her shaking hands with Vladimir Putin, taken when she met the Russian president in Moscow in 2017, would emphasise to the electorate that she was a serious player on the world stage.
The photo was included in Le Pen’s campaign manifesto, over one million of which have been distributed the length and breadth of France. Now they are being hastily withdrawn by party members as Le Pen does her best to distance herself from the most despised man in the West.
Le Pen is not the only presidential candidate to have been embarrassed by events in Ukraine. Eric Zemmour, her right-wing rival, had started to see his campaign gather some momentum last month but he has now fallen back in the polls, losing three points in a week. ‘I dream of a French Putin,’ he gushed in 2018, in a clip that has been doing the rounds in recent days. He probably doesn’t now.
Zemmour must also be rueing his stance on immigration – end it all, legal and illegal – given the desperate plight of Ukrainian women and children fleeing the fighting. Would he be so callous to deny them sanctuary?
Then there’s Valérie Pécresse of the centre-right Republicans. At a rally last weekend she tore into Le Pen and Zemmour for their warm words in the past about Putin. She on the other hand must regret stating last year that she modelled herself to a large degree on Angela Merkel. That was when the German Chancellor was regarded by the world’s liberal elite as ‘a safe pair of hands’. How times have changed. As Iain Martin comments, Merkel’s legacy ‘is in ruins’.
Emmanuel Macron has not taken a hit in the polls despite the failure of his dialogue with Putin.
Quite the reverse. The same poll that reported Zemmour’s descent revealed that the president has gained three points, putting him 11 per cent clear of his nearest challenger, Le Pen.
According to today’s Le Figaro, the war in Ukraine will be an important factor in deciding how two thirds of the French electorate vote next month. That is sure to benefit Macron more than his rivals. France has had the presidency of the rotating European Council since January and so Macron has been prominent throughout the weeks of diplomatic negotiations with Russia.
Few French people blame Macron for talking to Putin, nor do they give much credence to the Anglo-Saxon insinuations he had attempted to ‘appease’ the Russian leader. They admire what they consider his statesmanlike efforts, putting France at the centre of world events.
Macron had expected that Merkel’s departure in December would pave the way for him to become the pre-eminent politician in Europe but some of his thunder has been stolen in recent days by Olaf Scholz, Merkel’s successor, whose robust response to the Russian invasion has heartened every European who despaired at the weak and vacillating leadership of Merkel and her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.
Nonetheless, Macron has the EU presidency for another three months and so he can flex France’s muscles internationally. On Wednesday he announced that he will host the 27 heads of state of the European Union at Versailles next week to discuss energy independence and defence.
By then he will have officially declared himself a candidate in next month’s presidential election, a contest he is now almost certain to win. Last night he made a televised address to the nation in which he hailed Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky as ‘the face of honour, freedom and bravery’ and condemned Putin as a liar and warmonger. It was bold rhetoric, the sort Macron is born for. He also returned to a familiar theme: that of being the nation’s guardian angel. ‘My guiding line will be to protect you,’ he said, having first warned of the economic ramifications of the conflict in Ukraine.
Exactly two years ago Macron issued a similar rallying cry as Covid swept in, declaring that the country was at ‘war’ with the virus. Now there’s another scourge and he is once more asking the French to trust him to lead them to better days.
On Thursday the government announced that the divisive Covid passport will be dropped on March 14, as will the wearing of masks indoors.
Voila, says Macron. I have defeated coronavirus. Next up is Putin.