French Presidential Election in International Context [PODCAST]

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European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Paul Gradvohl, Professor at the Research Centre for Contemporary Central European History, University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. They talk about the presidential election in France and the possible outcomes in the current geopolitical situation – with a special focus on the war in Ukraine.

Leszek Jażdżewski: The first round of the French presidential election is behind us, with the results being revealed on April 10. The majority of the French seems to be against traditional mainstream politics and voted for Le Pen, Mélenchon or Zemmour – with a combined result at around 52% (approximately, 18 million votes). What does Marine Le Pen need to secure a victory in the second round? Is it possible for her to win?

Paul Gradvohl
Paul Gradvohl

Paul Gradvohl: She can win very easily. All she needs is a certain percentage of the votes plus one. She will be able to win if she is able to mobilize new people, convince those who voted for other candidates in the first round of the election to vote for her in the second round – or if the people who voted for Emmanuel Macron will not go to the ballots for the second time.

The biggest group of people who could make the difference are those who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In this group there are numerous individuals who do not intend to vote in ten days – simply because, for the last five years, they have spent most of their days criticizing Macron. Therefore, it is difficult for them to acknowledge the fact that they would be better off with five more years of the Macron presidency. They do not have a clear view of what it means to live under an authoritarian regime. They can dream about a democratic Marine Le Pen. And, apparently, dreams are sometimes affordable.

Part of the people who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon are already ready to vote directly for Marine Le Pen – not only to abstain from voting, but seem quite decided, at least at the moment, to chose her. It is hard to say how many of them would do so. We must bear in mind that in many interviews, such cases occur. This means that there is such a group that will simply switch from the far left to the far right.

There are other considerations as well. The people who did not vote in the first round of the election could show up for the second round and vote for Marcon or Le Pen, for various reasons. Today, as far as we know, according to opinion polls, Macron could win. However, the experiences we have is that if we believe in the results of what people say they did in the first round, a significant number of the voters decided at the very last minute – during the last few hours preceding the voting – if they were going to vote at all.

This means that it will be exceedingly difficult to figure out what the outcome is going to be until the very last minute. The only prediction I dare to make today is that the debate which is to take place between Macron and Le Pen on Wednesday, April 20, may serve as the source informing the people who remain undecided on what to do – whether to vote or not, and who to vote for in the former case.

Macron won the previous debate decisively five years ago. Perhaps this time Le Pen is better prepared to face him. From the outside, it seems strange that the war in Ukraine – which should actually have diminished the prospects of winning for Marine Le Pen due to her close ties to Vladimir Putin – has rather boosted Le Pen’s chances of a victory. Did the Russian invasion of Ukraine play any role in the first round of the election?

It has played a role, and not only a direct one. In the case of Emmanuel Macron, it played in favor of the current president, because he remains at the frontlines of European politics – and intends to stay there. There is a feeling of security attached to the fact that the French people know that he has been able to cope with the situation. This was, for example, the reason why former President Nicolas Sarkozy officially supported Macron in the previous presidential election. According to Sarkozy, this guy was able to face Putin.

On the other hand, in the case of Marine Le Pen the effect is reverse. However, when she speaks of the prices of gas and gasoline, she talks about the fact that she is ready to tell Putin to give up on Ukraine and secure the energy prices in France. Officially, she does not mention Ukraine; in practice, the message is there. So, I am not so sure that the war in Ukraine and the proximity of Marine Le Pen to Vladimir Putin has been too much of a problem – at least, until now.

Of course, what we have seen in the last two days, namely Macron strongly emphasizing the European perspective, which he has always had, while Madame Le Pen is – as always – overly critical of Europe and claims that it is Europe that is the problem. In terms of the war in Ukraine and the common European effort, it becomes very clear that both Ukraine and Russia are very present in this campaign. It is, however, difficult to say how will it influence the results.

The victory of Marine Le Pen would be the biggest blow for the European project. Can she be contained – like Donald Trump in the United States? What would it mean for France and the European Union if she is elected?

Simply put, it would be a catastrophe. Marine Le Pen would run to Viktor Orban, Mateusz Morawiecki and Jaroslaw Kaczynski and basically destroy the rule of law. Together with them she might try to destroy the EU as we know it. As far as the economy is concerned, France is the second country and Poland ranks sixth in Europe.

The victory of Le Pen would pose a lot of problems, also because the president in France is very much responsible for foreign policy. Should she be elected, she may consider European policies to be foreign policies, which will cause a major blow.

Secondly, Marine Le Pen would need to have a clear-cut majority in the parliament. It is not certain whether she can obtain it, because one thing is to win the presidential election, but another is for such a party to be able to face what could happen if the majority of the population sees – once Madame Le Pen is elected – what she is capable of doing. Hidden agendas do exist. The experience with Donald Trump or the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland shows that these people never say before the election what they will actually do – only in very general terms. Then, when they start getting down to more concrete issues that hurt people, the story can be very different.

In France, however, there is no Church nor Tadeusz Rydzyk’s Radio Maryja to help Marine Le Pen. So, even if there is a couple of private supporters of her presidency, the majority of big – and even smaller – companies are not at all in favor of the upheaval they may see as a result of the possible victory of Madame Le Pen.

I would not say that there will be the type of resistance from various institutions that we saw in the case of Trump’s presidency; in France we will observe another type of resistance, because I suppose there will be resistance.

This outcome is really frightening, especially since France is the birthplace of Enlightenment and the idea of human rights. It is striking that, until recently, the perception of authoritarian Russia in France has been so positive. Let us switch our focus to the east. Will the war in Ukraine change this view? Could it re-direct part of the France’s attention toward other countries in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)?

The campaign is already shifting some attention toward Hungary and Poland. The impact on the image of Russia is, of course, very negative. We must wait and see what will happen in the next few weeks, because what happened in Bucha and other similar situations have had a significant impact on the public opinion.

Putin has found himself in a new situation. He can no longer speak of victory as if it were to be the same type of a victory as he had in 2014 – namely the creation of the fake republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. This, today, is not a feasible result. He would need to win not only from the military point of view, but also be able to present something Crimea-looking. Meanwhile, Putin’s Crimean project costs Russia a lot. It is not an overwhelmingly fine place to live in. At the same time, for the past couple of years, the situation in the so-called ‘independent republics’ has been absolutely terrible – no one wanted to live there.

This is why I have a lot of doubts – not only about the Russian military but also their political capacity. A country that is today in a worse political state than Poland after December 1981. The style of ruling applied today to govern the Russian population is worse than the one applied in Poland back then. One can only imagine the mood in a country where everyone can be labelled and reported as a spy or an enemy of the country by their own children at school and later be visited by the police. In 1981 Poland, no one dared to do so.

I have the feeling that Russia is going to be a very much an outcast – even for the French right wing and for Marine Le Pen. It will be rather difficult to play ‘the Putin card’ within the next weeks, month, or even years. Of course, we will have to see what will actually happen on the election battlefield.

So, provided Ukraine can ensure its sovereignty, what role could this country play in the European efforts? Could it join the European Union? What are the alternative scenarios in light of the fact that Ukraine has clearly declared its pro-European affiliation? Evidently, at the moment, even in the countries that previously seemed to ignore Ukraine, this state now constitutes an important issue. What future lies ahead the Ukrainian nation?

This is a major change that no one has expected. Whatever happens today – unless the country is totally crushed – Ukraine will be either a part of the EU or a very important partner. Ukraine is a country were people were already dying on two separate occasions to become a part of the European project – first, in 2014, and now today. The big difference is that today people see It on their TV every evening.

Therefore, it would be impossible to forget about Ukraine. It will be very difficult not to think about the European solidarity in completely new terms – concerning not only Ukraine, but also other countries which at any point became the targets of Putin’s Russia – Finland, Sweden, the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldavia, Georgia, and Bulgaria.

This means that the perceptions are changing. Yesterday, it was possible to suspend the legislation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, made by Republika Srpska, it is so because of what happened in Ukraine. Before that, the Hungarian Commissioner and Viktor Orban strongly pressured the EU to allow Milan Babić and Republika Srpska get almost on the brink of a war with Sarajevo. What we see today is a rather deep change in perception.

We are getting to a point when things that would be totally unthinkable several months ago, now seem feasible. Let us consider how Sweden and Finland want to access NATO. Germany is seeking alternative energy sources to cut off Russian energy supplies. Angela Merkel is now outdated, while only several months ago she was the hero of the EU – even though she is responsible for allowing Viktor Orban to do as he pleased.

The impact of the recent developments will not only affect the status of Ukraine – which is changing radically – but also the perspective of what the EU is and the binds that connect its member states. All of this is undergoing a deep change.

Another problem is that some of eastern EU countries – primarily Hungary and Poland – pose an issue rather that offer any solutions. How should member states and EU institutions approach the rule of law issues and other anti-liberal developments in these countries at the time of the war in Ukraine? Should they maintain their stance or try a different approach?

I am not a politician, so I am not giving any advice here. I can only provide some aspects for an analysis. A stance according to which accepting the breaches of the rule of law is de facto sending a message to the rest of Europe that Hungary and Poland are not fully European, but because of Russia we have to allow them to be out of the rule of law – this is a very negative message that shows despise for the citizens of these countries.

Contrary to what the governments say, my take on that is that allowing these states not to respect common rules will de facto weaken them and show their citizens that they are not fully European. By no means is it a good idea to help authoritarian developments in these countries. All the more so, because we can see that authoritarian developments weaken these states in the long term. In the case of Hungary, it is due to these developments that the Hungarian population is still largely manipulated by pro-Russian or Orbanist propaganda. Nevertheless, this means that the European solidary is at stake on both levels – through the relationship with Russia and what it means to Ukraine, and the respect for democratic rules.

I do not see the EU getting stronger by means of self-destruction. One thing is clear: as far as Hungary is concerned, action must be taken in a swift and strong manner. Because what happened during the recent Hungarian parliamentary election is a sheer scandal. Votes were bought, inequality in terms of access to information was incredible – all this means that one cannot speak of a fair election. As simple as that. Such behavior cannot be allowed inside the European Union – at least in my opinion.

Sadly, I must agree with you that the question is how the EU is to deal with its internal problems. It seems that sometimes it is easier to deal with the countries that want to get on the accession path, when in reality the EU does not seem to be equipped to deal with more than one member state with illiberal democratic tendencies at the same time. Coming back to France, provided that Emmanuel Macron wins the second round of the presidential election, how do you perceive his idea of a ‘strategic sovereignty’ of Europe developing after the end of the war in Ukraine? What will the French vision of the future of Europe look like? And how likely it is that this vision will materialize?

I am not sure that Macron’s vision of the strategic strengthening of the EU is totally clear. It will become clear once Germany makes certain choices – which, apparently, is quite a difficult process. At the same time, part of Macron’s politics will depend on how the June election to the French parliament turns out and whether it will deliver a majority – and how significant will it be – for Macron.

Until now, he had a majority with his own party. But the results of the election now show that the changes for such a majority are not too clear. Therefore, he might need to combine his views with the views of other political forces. Even though as a president he can handle foreign policies on his own, the European politics are not only about foreign policy but also about internal politics.

The stakes will thus be extremely high within the next few months. The concept of the strategic strengthening of Europe will depend on what happens in Ukraine, as it will mean new responsibilities for the EU as a security factor as a whole.

For example, until now, no one has spoken about the reshuffling of European industries around defense. What type of cooperation are we going to foster on the basis of our new experiences? Are we going to include new countries in such a cooperation? Are we going to enhance EU’s capacity in terms of military forces? How will the EU cooperate with NATO? This is also not that clear. As far as France is concerned, will we develop in France a new concept for using nuclear weapons in a new way?

All these are remarkably interesting questions. On top of this, there are the questions of the migration agenda or the relations with Turkey are now seemingly changing. All of these aspects must be re-thought within the next weeks and months.

I do not pretend to deliver solutions. I think that our role as social scientists is to provide good questions.

This is exactly what we need right now. It is an extremely interesting time especially for intellectuals, because so many things are happening, and ideas may actually shape the future of the continent.


The podcast was recorded on April 14, 2022.


This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.


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