PARIS (AP) – The French capital may be thousands of kilometers away from the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, but what is happening in French polls this month could have consequences there.
Right-wing extremist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has close ties to Russia and wants to weaken the EU and NATO, which could undermine Western efforts to stop Russia’s war against Ukraine. Le Pen is trying to oust Center President Emmanuel Macronwhich has a small lead in the polls ahead of France’s April 24 presidential election.
Here are some of the ways in which the French election could affect the war in Ukraine:
ARMING OF UKRAINE
Macron’s government has sent € 100 million worth of weapons to Ukraine in recent weeks and said on Wednesday it would send more as part of a Western military relief effort. France has been a major source of military support for Ukraine since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and supported separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Le Pen on Wednesday expressed reservations about supplying Ukraine with additional weapons. She said that if elected president, she would continue defense and intelligence assistance, but would be “cautious” about sending weapons because she believes the shipments could suck other countries into the war with Russia.
Le Pen’s campaign has successfully exploited French voters’ frustration over rising inflation, which has worsened as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and subsequent Western sanctions against Russia, a major gas supplier and trading partner for France and Europe.
The European Union has been exceptionally united in agreeing on five rounds of increasingly harsh sanctions against Russia. If she became President of France, Le Pen could try to oppose or limit further EU sanctions, as further action requires the unanimous support of the bloc’s 27 member nations.
France is the EU’s No. 2 economy after Germany and the key to EU decision – making. France now also holds the rotating EU presidency, giving France’s next leader considerable influence.
Le Pen is particularly opposed to sanctions against Russian gas and oil. She also said earlier 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 to reach out to Putin and invited him to Versailles and a presidential resort on the Mediterranean, hoping to bring Russia’s policy back into greater alignment with the West.
The French president also sought to revive the Moscow-Kiev peace talks over the protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine between the government and Russia-backed separatists. Macron visited Putin in the Kremlin weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and has continued to talk to the Russian leader during the war. At the same time, Macron has supported several rounds of EU sanctions.
Le Pen’s party has deep ties to Russia. She met with Putin as the French presidential candidate in 2017 and has previously praised him. She is warmly welcomed to the events of the Russian Embassy in Paris, and her right-wing extremist party also received a loan of 9 million euros ($ 9.8 million) from a Russian-Czech bank because she said French banks refused to lend money to the party .
Le Pen says that the war in Ukraine has partly changed her opinion of Putin, but she said on Wednesday that the West should try to restore relations with Russia when the conflict ends. She suggested a “strategic rapprochement” between NATO and Russia to prevent Moscow from allying itself too closely with China.
WEAKEN NATO AND THE EU
While Macron is a staunch defender of the EU and recently strengthened 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 is in favor of pulling France out of NATO’s military command, which would take French military personnel out of the body planning 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 US-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 reduce the EU’s influence by cutting loose on the bloc from within, while no longer acknowledging that European law takes precedence over national law.
Follow the AP’s coverage of France’s presidential election at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022
Follow all AP stories about Russia’s war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine