France 2022: And then there was war

Wahlplakate von Le Pen, Pécresse, Zemmour, Montage: LibMod

French election campaigns are usually desper­ately navel-gazing. Foreign policy issues are all but absent from the debate. And even in ‘ordinary’ times, all main­stream evening news programmes consider inter­na­tional news a toxic audience killer. But the war in Ukraine has swept every­thing else in the back­ground and changed the campaign dynamic. It has also put quite a few candi­dates under pressure for pro-Russian stances and statements.

Inter­na­tional news? Foreign Policy? Yawn!!!

For a state that enter­tains 160 embassies, 96 cultural insti­tutes and 800 language centres all over the world, holds a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, belongs to the still rather small circle of nuclear powers and currently deploys over 30,000 soldiers in a variety of crisis zones abroad, geopo­lit­ical issues are surpris­ingly absent when it comes to choosing the next President.

For all its univer­salist beliefs, France is most of the time an intro­verted, navel-gazing country. The most-watched French eight o’clock evening news shows on TF1 (private) and France2 (public), which account for 50% of the audience both shun inter­na­tional news like vampires flee garlic. You learn more about what’s going on in the world in the fifteen minutes of the German Tagess­chau than in half an hour with its French homo­logues. That’s partic­u­larly true for all things European: German public broad­casters have accred­ited a total of 35 jour­nal­ists in Brussels, France Télévi­sion proudly boasts two.

Admit­tedly, there is ARTE, with a resolutely inter­na­tional outlook in their 7:45 evening news, and there is excellent and intel­li­gent coverage of inter­na­tional news on the public radio stations, and still a good choice of quality daily news­pa­pers and weekly magazines to get your infor­ma­tion from. But main­stream tele­vi­sion channels, still one of the main sources of infor­ma­tion for the popu­la­tion, have system­at­i­cally and brazenly shrunk their respec­tive networks of foreign corre­spon­dents over recent decades, as David Garcia recalled in a (depressing) recent inves­ti­ga­tion in Le Monde diplo­ma­tique. If they have kept corre­spon­dents in London and Rome, it’s only because of the British monarchy and the Vatican. And Wash­ington, of course: Trump’s antics were a gift, and every four years, American elections are a dramatic delight.

This is worrying. And it has even dawned on French poli­cy­makers. Due, perhaps, to the pro-European outlook of Emmanuel Macron’s majority, the French parlia­ment has even commis­sioned an ‘Infor­ma­tion report concerning the consid­er­a­tion of European issues in audio-visual media’ (published in autumn 2021). Needless to say, there will be little effect. It’s impos­sible (and not desirable either) to impose quotas of EU coverage on French broad­casters. But it’s about time to shake the old belief, based on dubious, and dated evidence, that foreign affairs are toxic for audience ratings.

In election campaigns, the inward-looking becomes even worse. Ten years ago, after more than two and a half hours in the final TV debate of the pres­i­den­tial campaign between François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, the renowned moderator David Pujadas had to start begging for at least one word on foreign policy. They kindly accepted his request, at around half past eleven, discussing Afghanistan and the Sahel for 11 minutes.

This year, a similar propor­tion was to be expected, despite de simul­ta­neous French EU Council Pres­i­dency. This is actually para­dox­ical since the President to be elected will spend more than half of his/​her time on oblig­a­tions and crisis manage­ment in Europe and the world, dele­gating most of the domestic work to the prime minister.

Putin’s war has changed the perspec­tive. The remaining five campaign weeks will be dominated and profoundly altered by the horrific pictures from Ukraine. Loud and enthu­si­astic campaign rallies will seem inap­pro­priate, aggres­sive rhetoric will have to be handled with the utmost care by all chal­lengers. Espe­cially those who have been a bit too close to Putin in the past.

In France V‑Days are W‑Days

In many European countries, people are puzzled by the military parade on the Champs-Elysées on 14 July. To many, it feels like a Cold War ritual that befits author­i­tarian regimes but is unsuit­able, if not ridicu­lous, for 21st-century liberal democracy.

It’s a misap­pre­hen­sion I can fully under­stand. Having been socialised in the pacifist, anti-mili­taristic mood in Western Germany of the post-war decades, I needed twenty years to under­stand how little the 14 July parade has to do with any kind of glori­fi­ca­tion of the army, let alone the war. Rather than a nostalgic cele­bra­tion of military grandeur, it’s a heartfelt tribute to those who make sure the country can continue to enjoy freedom and self-determination.

In its over­whelming majority, the French nation has absolutely no romantic longing for times when glory and honour were acquired on battle­fields. Quite the contrary: since 1918, this country has been struck by a deeply-rooted war-weariness. So many of its regions are plastered with war ceme­teries of so many different nations. The most remote village has a war memorial with the names of entire cohorts of boys engraved in it. When people gather around them on 11 November or 8 May they don’t see much to celebrate, they simply want to remember the immea­sur­able blood toll that was paid. Rather than Victory Day, it’s Weariness Day really.

World War II was expe­ri­enced as a period of occu­pa­tion through an over­pow­ering, aggres­sive neighbour, during which society split up painfully into oppor­tunistic collab­o­ra­tors, passive followers, and brave resistant fighters. Thanks to the latter, honour was safe, but nothing to be partic­u­larly proud of. And beyond some die-hard impe­ri­al­istic circles, there was not much enthu­siasm for the inde­pen­dence wars in the crumbling colonial empire of the 1950s.

Clearly, there is little appetite in French society to link war to “our finest hour”. In the collec­tive memory, dominated by the courage and deter­mi­na­tion of Charles de Gaulle (as well as his selective rewriting of history), the term “war” is a site of memory that rather than commem­o­rate Napoleonic conquests, invokes a situation of exis­ten­tial, almost hopeless threat, in which resis­tance becomes a moral duty.

That’s exactly the semantic conno­ta­tion conveyed by Emmanuel Macron when he used the term “war” six times in his first big corona speech on French tele­vi­sion on 16 March 2020. To many foreign ears, this sounded defi­nitely over-the-top. But for his citizens, it felt like a sober, down-to-the-point descrip­tion of the circumstances.

Incum­bency advantage in times of crisis

In the ongoing election campaign, disrupted by the shock of an aggres­sive invasion on the European continent, French war-weariness will ensure that the President’s vain attempts to dissuade Vladimir Putin with diplo­matic means from attacking Ukraine, will not be perceived as a failure, but as a sincere, morally justified effort. His chal­lengers would be well advised to avoid blaming him for his lack of success.

What they will criticise is the quasi-automatic advantage that the incumbent draws from the most serious crisis situation of recent years (in a country that has had no shortage of crises recently). It allows Emmanuel Macron to cultivate his profile as an inter­na­tion­ally recog­nised statesman and simul­ta­ne­ously remain far above the lowlands of campaign rhetoric. With only five weeks to go until the first election round, he simply refuses to enter the ring. Even his official announce­ment of running for re-election was almost done offhand­edly: in written form, in the regional daily news­pa­pers that still cover the territory.

The electoral system with its two rounds is playing into his hands: it enables him to play the role of the chess champion who watches with interest the semi-finals of his future contenders for the crown. And thanks to the relent­less frag­men­ta­tion of the party spectrum, a voter base of roughly 25% is a guarantee for the second round anyway.

The chal­lengers will also have serious diffi­cul­ties in crit­i­cising their foreign policy choices for the last five years. True, he has failed in his attempts to establish a construc­tive personal rela­tion­ship with the likes of Trump or Putin. And he has not been able to obtain massive tangible successes beyond the admit­tedly massive and tangible EU recovery plan, of whose necessity and scope he managed to convince both the Germans and the Even-More-Frugals. But in hindsight, many of his provoca­tive state­ments and ambitious visions are rather vindi­cated by the events.

Calling NATO “brain dead” may have been a wee bit exag­ger­ated, but it also was a helpful whistle-blower’s alert. His repeated calls for “European sover­eignty”, for more respon­si­bility in building capa­bil­i­ties of self-defence, turn out to be well-founded. And domes­ti­cally, he was the first in a long list of pres­i­dents who addressed the costly (and therefore always postponed) moderni­sa­tion of the French armed forces by sched­uling a progres­sive increase of the defence budget.

All this leaves little oppor­tu­nity to attack Macron in the area, European and foreign policy, which not only is bound to over­shadow the rest of the campaign but also serves as a painful reminder to everybody that the youngest of the candi­dates (44 years old) is the one with the most expe­ri­ence in these matters.

Pictures of Putin

Not to mention the fact that the war in Ukraine puts all four main chal­lengers of Macron in a difficult position with regard to past state­ments and attitudes towards Vladimir Putin and Russian great power politics.

Among them, Valérie Pécresse, from the (formerly moderate) Répub­li­cains is the least concerned. She has never been part of the clique of Putinophiles in her party, vocally led by Nicolas Sarkozy. And she managed to defuse the next François Fillon scandal. The former prime minister and pres­i­den­tial candidate in 2017 occupied two well-remu­ner­ated seats on the board of the energy firms Sibur and Zarubezh­neft. He withdrew from both now – appar­ently following a phone call with Valérie Pécresse – and declared in a newspaper article he had been deceived about Putin’s real intentions.

Marine Le Pen will have a much harder time freeing herself from the image of a typical radical right Putin groupie. Perma­nently under financial pressure, she had contracted a 9‑million Euro loan at Moscow bank for her 2017 campaign. What’s even more embar­rassing is the ballyhoo she then made about her personal audience with Vladimir (at the time, he still sat down at small round coffee tables). It was an oppor­tu­nity for her to sharply criticise EU sanctions against the Crimea annex­a­tion: “My viewpoint on Ukraine is perfectly congruent with Russia’s”, she said. Good to know. And the handshake photo taken at the occasion can be found in the glossy election brochure already printed in 1.2 million copies, as Libéra­tion hastened to tell us this week.

Genuine hymns of praise for Vladimir Putin can also be found in Eric Zemmour’s writings and talk-show clippings. In partic­ular, his “dream of a French Putin” and repeated expres­sion of admi­ra­tion for the “true patriot” and “last bastion of resis­tance against the tempest of political correct­ness”, are now coming home to haunt his campaign. Zemmour also had explic­itly adopted Putin’s doctrine stripping Ukraine of any right to exist in the first place and has been casti­gating for years the West for its alleged aggres­sion against Russia. The exhuma­tion of all these skeletons, as well as his attempts at rebranding Putin as an “author­i­tarian democrat”, may not sink his campaign, but can hardly be helpful.

The situation is different for the leader of the radical left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who despite his uncon­tested erudition and eloquence has never managed to nuance his funda­mental Anti-Amer­i­canism. In his world, Russia, Cuba, or Venezuela can only be victims of US impe­ri­alism, and his empathy for Putin’s concep­tions of “sover­eignty” and “security” have been a steady staple of his state­ments over the years. It would be unfair to grant him much sympathy for the state of Russian democracy, and when in Moscow he also met with dissi­dents. Now that he’s under pressure for taking sides, he half-heartedly condemns the invasion of Ukraine and keeps attacking his favourite object of scorn, the European Union, as well as its sanctions that he considers both ille­git­i­mate and ridicu­lous. All this is only convincing to his party members and die-hard followers but hardly conducive to finding the voters he needs to reach the second round.

What all these case studies highlight is the effi­ciency of pro-Russian lobbying in French politics over the last two decades. Even Emmanuel Macron, who does not lack intel­li­gence and critical lucidity, could not help but be fasci­nated by the Bona­partist career of this leader of great military power. It is almost ironic that he now gathers an informal European Council at the Château of Versailles (10/​11 March), exactly the place where he welcomed in great pomp Vladimir Putin for a state visit at the occasion of an exhi­bi­tion on Peter the Great. Macron is also lucky that his party, La République en Marche, is simply too young to be cont­a­m­i­nated by any attrac­tion to Putin’s Russia.

Shocked and paralysed

Global politics has invited itself into the French election campaign and does not seem willing to leave any time soon. Fever­ishly, Macron’s chal­lengers are seeking the right tone and a good strategy to attack the incumbent, instinc­tively knowing that the last thing the vast majority now wants is petty polemics.

All the more so as even the main­stream evening news programmes seem up to the challenge. Not only do they cover the war inten­sively, but they provide actually good expla­na­tions of complex issues, mobil­ising competent reporters and truly brilliant experts. It’s almost para­dox­ical: created for providing sustain­able peace, the EU may actually be better under­stood and appre­ci­ated by many for its current activ­i­ties in the war.

Not so navel-gazing, after all, France in the 2022 election campaign. There seems to be a wide­spread under­standing that this is not just a Russian-Ukrainian conflict, but a proxy war for democracy and self-deter­mi­na­tion the outcome of which will have a lasting impact on Western democ­ra­cies, too. In  his televised speech of 2 March, Macron summarised very clearly what’s at stake: “Democracy is no longer consid­ered an incon­testable regime, it is put into question, right before our eyes.”


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