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Ukraine as Seen by France’s Presidential Candidates 

Ukraine as Seen by France’s Presidential Candidates 
 Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program

The war in Ukraine is testing the limits of diplomacy, as EU, UK and US leaders gather to impose sanctions on Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Moscow in February in an attempt to negotiate de-escalation with his Russian counterpart and reposition France as a central geopolitical player. While he announced his candidacy for re-election on March 3rd, in a letter to the French people, President Macron remains fully mobilized in his duties as head of state, especially with respect to the war in Ukraine. What about the country’s other potential leaders? In the months leading up to the French election, we take a look at what each presidential candidate is saying about the war in Ukraine. 

With a bit over one month to go until the presidential election, this article is part of a new series, French Foreign Policy: Heading for the Ballots, that analyzes each candidate’s approach to a number of French foreign policy issues. 

A Timeline of Events

  • In Spring 2021, Russia sent about 100,000 troops to Ukraine's borders, ostensibly for military exercises. In August, during a visit of President Zelensky in Washington, Joe Biden confirmed his commitment "to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression". 
  • However, in November, Russia renewed its military presence near the Ukrainian border, alarming American intelligence officials, who traveled to Brussels to brief NATO allies on the escalating crisis. 
  • In December, President Biden called President Putin, and warned him that continuing Russia’s aggressive military buildup on the border with Ukraine could force NATO to move more troops into eastern Europe, reiterating that any further violation of its territory would exact "serious costs and consequences". This discussion set the stage for diplomatic efforts, even though neither country detailed significant progress towards a resolution or the outlines of any deal. Vladimir Putin issued a set of security demands to Joe Biden, including asking NATO to permanently bar Ukraine from membership and to withdraw forces stationed in countries that joined the alliance after 1997, and a written response from the US and NATO.
  • France has instigated diplomatic exchanges with Ukraine since the beginning of the crisis in June 2014. Paris also hosted the Normandy Format Summit of Heads of State and Government on 9 December 2019. At this Summit, a number of measures to improve the situation and to facilitate the implementation of the Minsk Agreements were made, including consolidating the ceasefire, making progress related to mine clearance, opening new crossing points, identifying new areas of disengagement, and exchanging prisoners taken during the conflict. 
  • On February 7, Emmanuel Macron traveled to Moscow in a diplomatic effort to talk with Vladimir Putin and negotiate de-escalation. He stopped in Kiev on his way back on February 8.
  • On February 21, events took a menacing turn, as President Putin signed decrees recognizing two breakaway republics in the Donbas region of south-eastern Ukraine as independent states, and ordered troops there as "peacekeepers". On February 24, in a televised address, Putin announced the launch of a "special military operation [...] to pursue the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine".
  • Emmanuel Macron spoke immediately to the French people, in reaction to the Russian invasion in the eastern territories of Ukraine, and denounced "a massive military attack" that will have "lasting, profound consequences on our lives." He added that "the sanctions against Russia will be commensurate with the aggression of which it is guilty, militarily and economically as well as in the field of energy." These measures would be added to those already adopted by the United States and the European Union on February 23.
  • In addition, in a message read before the National Assembly and the Senate, the French President said that an additional economic aid of 300 million euros will be provided to Ukrainians. He also wrote that France will make "additional commitments within the framework of NATO to protect Baltic and Romanian soil", stressing that it will also be necessary to protect against cyberattacks.
  • Indeed, the EU-27 approved on February 24 a new set of sanctions against Russia, in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Targeting the financial, energy and transport sectors, they should radically limit Russia's access to European capital markets. New sanctions against personalities close to Vladimir Putin are to be added to those already in force on Wednesday. They will target individuals in the circles of power by freezing their assets and prohibiting them from entering European territory. Brussels, however, chose not to block Russia's access to the Swift banking messaging system, despite the request made by Ukrainian President Zelensky. 
  • In a television speech on March 3, President Emmanuel Macron, candidate for his re-election, made a promise to the French to "protect" them, predicting that "The days ahead are likely to be increasingly hard." "President Putin has chosen war, [...] alone" he insisted.
  • Communicating regularly with President Putin, in exchanges that he described as "demanding and constant", Emmanuel Macron insisted on March 6, with his Russian counterpart, on the need to secure the Chernobyl plant and other atomic sites, in the face of growing concern in Europe around a potential nuclear incident.

Key Figures

  • According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 13,300 people have lost their lives and 25,000 have been wounded since 2014 in Ukraine. A total of 1.4 million people have been forced to flee their place of residence to other regions in Ukraine and approximately 1 million refugees have moved to bordering countries.
  • Since 2018, France has allocated €4.2 million in humanitarian aid via the Crisis and Support Center (CDCS) to address the crisis in Ukraine
  • In 2022, France designated €1.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine via aid granted to the Danish Demining Group, the French NGOs Triangle Génération Humanitaire and Première Urgence Internationale.
  • The recent poll conducted by Odoxa-Backbone Consulting for Le Figaro indicates that 54% of French people were already "worried" about the latest developments in the Ukrainian crisis before the attacks of February 24, without considering that it was necessary to "fight" Vladimir Putin. 58% considered that "Emmanuel Macron must treat Russia as a necessary evil with which we must deal."

What are French presidential candidates saying?

Anne Hidalgo - Parti socialiste (left) 

  • Socialist party candidate and mayor of Paris advocates European solidarity as the best response to the conflict. Back in January, she warned about the passivity of the EU in this matter, while it "must support these peoples in this former Eastern bloc" and "recognize their aspiration to want to look at the side of Europe".
  • Following Putin's recognition of the pro-Russian Donbass regions, Anne Hidalgo openly defended Ukraine, an "ally and friend", against what she described as a "violation of international law" by Moscow. "France and Europe must stand together, united and firm in the face of this threat to peace in Europe", she added.
  • Regarding the start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, Anne Hidalgo took to Twitter to express her support and solidarity with Ukraine, and called for a "firm reaction to this unjustified and criminal act." The candidate of the Socialist Party has, in the wake, published a statement where she called on the European Union to "provide Ukraine with the military equipment necessary to deal with this conflict." Finally, she called for "firm and immediate economic sanctions. Whether it is the blocking of Russian propaganda organizations, the seizure of assets of those close to the Kremlin or the suspension of access to international financial transfer systems."

Yannick Jadot - Europe Écologie Les Verts (green)

  • In January, he argued in favor of a visit by Emmanuel Macron to Ukraine, saying that "the President has been reaching out to Vladimir Putin for four and a half years and slapping Europe in the face," while denouncing the fact that "Macron has never been to Kyiv in five years," despite the fact that the Ukrainian President has been received at the Élysée on several occasions. In addition, the candidate also felt that it was necessary to "maintain the threats", and to "sanction the corrupt Russian oligarchy".
  • The candidate recently denounced the "complacency" of Éric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Emmanuel Macron, "who is on familiar terms with Vladimir Putin", towards "dictator" Vladimir Putin. 
  • Following the Russian attack, Yannick Jadot strongly condemned "an unprecedented aggression since the Second World War against a European country," as did the entire French political class. In a television interview, the candidate called on European partners to initiate "massive sanctions against Vladimir Putin," such as "[seizing] the assets and bank accounts of all Russian oligarchs", insisting that the sanctions should be "massive".
  • Yannick Jadot also accused multinationals such as TotalEnergies of "unacceptable complicity" with Moscow. He added that if he were Emmanuel Macron, he would have imposed "an end to its complicity with Vladimir Putin and what is happening in Ukraine. I would impose on Total to leave Russia."

Marine Le Pen - Rassemblement National (far-right) 

  • Marine Le Pen considers the endless enlargement of NATO "unreasonable". She also advocates France’s exit from the integrated military command, and has asserted that "the children of France do not have to go and die for Ukraine"; that through American and European provocations, "we are creating the conditions for a conflict that has no reason to exist"; that "the Cold War waged against the Russians threw them into the arms of China"; that the sanctions are "a major mistake"; and that President Macron, stuck in Maastrichtian Europe and NATO, is not a credible arbiter or mediator in the conflict. 
  • On February 22, Le Pen stated that "my message would be to bring all the actors around the table, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia", adding that "a war can always be avoided". Thus, these central actors in the conflict could find a solution which "could at the same time allow the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and this autonomy which is essential for regions which hoped for it at the end of the Minsk summit". She also stated that "Russia should be asked to leave the Donbass permanently" and "recognize the integration of Crimea into Russia, because Crimea will not return to Ukraine"
  • Following the announcement by Vladimir Putin of the invasion of Ukraine, Marine Le Pen said in a press release that "no reason can justify the launch of a military operation against Ukraine by Russia that breaks the balance of peace in Europe. It must be unambiguously condemned." She also called "for the immediate cessation of Russian military operations in Ukraine." The candidate showed some restraints about the sanctions, warning they could have "terrifying consequences on the purchasing power of the French, especially in the area of energy, when they are already extremely weakened." She also recalled the sanctions initiated in 2014, stating that "the sanctions against Russia had resulted in our farmers suffering, who stopped their exports to Russia.
  • Marine Le Pen recently reiterated her opposition to the delivery of weapons because "it is adding weapons to the war. " She added that "It is on diplomacy that we must bet everything" and that sancontions "should not have as a consequence the economic collapse of our own country"

Jean-Luc Mélenchon - La France Insoumise (far-left)

  • The candidate advocated France's "non-alignment". "This means, in practical terms, that the Russians must not cross the border into Ukraine, which must be absolutely respected. And that the Americans must not seek to annex Ukraine into NATO". He finally questioned the role of Emmanuel Macron in this crisis, who "has gradually placed himself in a position that has lowered his credibility."
  • Following the recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics by Vladimir Putin, Jean-Luc Mélenchon noted in a press release that "Respect for borders, whatever they may be, is a basic condition of international life where diplomacy and the UN decide rather than weapons and power moves", and advocated a "border conference" under the auspices of the OSCE, in order to know "what the Russians and the North Americans are talking about and what they want today". But he did not openly take sides against Vladimir Putin and his fear that Ukraine would join NATO, repeating it was "another bad deal for us French who have no interest in the extension of the military domination of the US and its interests on our continent."
  • After the announcement by Russian President Putin of the launch of a military operation in Ukraine, Jean-Luc Mélenchon called for the refusal of an "unbearable escalation", recalling the importance of the use of diplomatic channels to obtain "an immediate cease-fire and a withdrawal of all foreign troops from Ukraine". In a statement, the candidate said: "Russia is aggressing Ukraine. An initiative of pure violence manifesting a will to power without measure. An unbearable escalation is provoked." Faced with the seriousness of the situation, the candidate reviewed his views on Vladimir Putin, he considers that his duty is to "say how the Russian attack on Ukraine is not bearable. [...] Mr. Putin's Russia is taking the initiative to provoke an incredible retreat from history on the Old Continent.
  • In a meeting in Lyon, the candidate, accused by his competitors of complicity with Putin, immediately reiterated his opposition to the war, beginning his meeting with these words: "Stop the war, stop the war of Putin!". He also distanced himself from a former Russian opponent to whom he was close, Sergei Udaltsov, who spoke out in favor of the war.

Valérie Pécresse - Les Républicains (right) 

  • On February 22, the candidate strongly condemned the decision taken by the Kremlin, calling it a "violation of international law", and called for the European Union to define "a strategy for peace in Europe". She was also quite critical of the diplomatic action of Emmanuel Macron, denouncing the fact that he led "an arrogant and solitary diplomacy".
  • According to Pécresse, the "European Union must be firm" with Russia to "roll back the offensive now". "We need economic sanctions targeted at Russia", she stated on February 22 on France Inter. "Once again Vladimir Putin manipulated Europe, and instrumentalized his dialogue with Emmanuel Macron", Pécresse said following the French President’s visit to Moscow. 
  • After the announcement by the Russian President on the beginning of the invasion, Valerie Pécresse condemned "with the utmost firmness the war started by Russia in Ukraine", and expressed her solidarity with the Ukrainian people. According to the candidate, "Europeans must be able to take truly dissuasive sanctions against Russian financial interests and targeted against Vladimir Putin's entourage."
  • In response to Putin’s invasion, Valérie Pécresse said that sanctions should be taken "even further" by depriving the Russians of access to the Swift financial network, something that has since been done. In the wake of the sanctions taken against Russia, Valérie Pécresse insisted on reiterating her support for "the very firm sanctions that France and Europe have taken against Mr. Putin, against the oligarchs, against Russian interests".

Fabien Roussel - Parti Communiste Français (far-left) 

  • In a TV interview, Roussel called Putin’s decision to wage war on Ukraine "an extremely serious decision by the Russian President. He is choosing war, he is choosing to violate the most basic rules of international law, first by recognizing these two territories of Ukraine". 
  • Following the Russian invasion, Fabien Roussel suggested that "large villas which belong to Russian oligarchs" be "requisitioned" and made available to refugees "fleeing the war". "Above all, we must be able to mobilize in each municipality the possibility of accommodating a family, two families, and that each EU country takes its part", he noted. 
  • In reply to being asked about whether French troops should be sent to Ukraine, Roussel called for "silencing the guns" and putting "tremendous pressure on the Russian President so that he is forced to cease fire and withdraw his troops". 
  • On February 28, Roussel said that he wishes to "maintain a link with Vladimir Putin" even if he "bears exclusive responsibility for this situation". The candidate proposed a conference between all European countries, stating that by "exerting strong pressure on Putin together, we can open the possibility of obtaining a ceasefire." 
  • In a meeting in Le Havre, the Communist candidate also attacked the multinationals, clearly naming them: "these French multinationals, listed on the CAC 40, Total, BNP, LVMH and so many others, which could still get rich in 2022 during this war as they did during the pandemic". He added, "There is no way we can accept to see our bills soar today along with their profits and dividends. There are pandemic profiteers, there are war profiteers."

Eric Zemmour - Reconquête (far-right) 

  • The candidate condemned the violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine by Russia, but he believes that this decision is also the result of "the policy pursued by the West and NATO, which have consistently ignored the legitimate security concerns of Russia." He also criticized the sanctions against Moscow, which, according to him, are "not only against our economic interests, but are also ineffective."
  • On February 20, Eric Zemmour called for the respect of the Minsk II agreements, proposing "a great European treaty of pacification which will say that the borders of Ukraine must be recognized by Russia, but in exchange NATO must commit itself to the fact that Ukraine will never enter NATO." He finally attacked President Macron, saying that "The problem is that Emmanuel Macron is not credible. Emmanuel Macron is not respected by Vladimir Putin".
  • On February 24, Eric Zemmour "unreservedly condemns the Russian military intervention that began last night in Ukraine", after having expressed his skepticism about an invasion of Ukraine a few days earlier. He also called on Emmanuel Macron to go to Kiev and Moscow to obtain an "immediate cease-fire". Unlike his competitors, the candidate did not speak out about potential sanctions against Russia.
  • Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Zemmour presented himself as a "statesman who sees further than emotion". He "prefers" that Ukraine’s war refugees go to Poland to avoid "destabilizing France, which is already overwhelmed by immigration". 
  • Accused by several of his rivals of being subservient to the Kremlin, Eric Zemmour defended himself during a meeting on March 6: "We have never wanted and will never want to be subservient to Russia, China, the United States, or anyone." He also added "No, I am not on Putin's side because I am not on any side other than that of France. My side is France." The candidate repeated that he was against the reception of Ukrainian refugees in France, but he would rather have France help the countries bordering Ukraine. "What is France waiting for to send our logistic, financial and medical support to Poland? What are they (the 27 of the European Union) waiting for to stop stigmatizing Hungary, which is taking its full share in the Ukrainian reception?". For Mr. Zemmour, France must help these countries to welcome Ukrainians because they "are European, because they are Christians."


Co-written by Lisa Klaassen, Web Content Editor, and Anissa Nabi, Assistant Policy Officer. 


Copyright: Valentine CHAPUIS / AFP

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