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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