Europe fears Marine Le Pen victory in 2022 French presidential election

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RIGA, Latvia – Europe already faces a resurgent threat from the Kremlin, and braces for the possible emergence of a threat from within – one that could strengthen Moscow, break the European Union and break the NATO alliance at the most critical moment on the continent since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Marine Le Pen, a far-right hound with a history of warm ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is making her strongest of three bids for the French presidency, with polls ahead of Sunday’s final round of elections putting her within striking distance of the Élysée. -palace. Should she succeed, observers from Portugal to Latvia fear that an illiberal, Russia-friendly leader will take the helm of the EU’s only nuclear power.

Washington, too, would face a new strategic challenge in Le Pen’s France, which under her leadership could undermine support for Ukraine and align with Moscow’s interests.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Le Pen proposed a new Franco-Russian alliance, promising to forge one even if it provoked US sanctions. She said Ukraine belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence and in 2014 defended Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Now, though she has distanced herself from Putin, she has suggested that she halt French arms transfers to Ukraine and, once the war is over, seek to establish a “strategic rapprochement” between NATO and Moscow.

Here in Latvia, as in the other Baltic countries, calls are mounting to bolster NATO’s mission to face the escalating threat from Moscow. But Le Pen, some here warn, could weaken the alliance at the worst possible time.

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In recent days, Le Pen has rejected any “submission to an American protectorate” and suggested that he would be uncomfortable with French troops under foreign command. While its platform is anti-American, it harbors echoes of former President Donald Trump, who dismissed NATO as “obsolete” early in his tenure.

Le Pen has stopped advocating a full withdrawal from NATO, saying she would keep France as part of the alliance and abide by Article 5, which forces member states to defend others who are attacked. But she has pledged to take France out of NATO’s military chain of command (and keep it out of a future European army). That position could harm coordination and planning, cast doubt on ongoing French surveillance flights into Poland and troops in the Baltics, while raising wider questions about NATO’s future.

“Everything starts little by little,” said Rihards Kols, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Latvian parliament. “She’s covering up… her rhetoric.”

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“We have no illusions about who she is, who she represents and the political agenda she has been promoting for years,” Kols said. It is “pro-Russian, pro-Kremlin rhetoric aimed at undermining EU unity” and fragmenting NATO.

EU defenders view a potential Le Pen victory as an existential threat that could be more destructive to the bloc than Brexit.

She has her long-standing calls to withdraw from the EU and drop the euro. But critics say she’s only traded those positions for a slower venom. Its proposals — which include reintroducing border controls, prioritizing French nationals for certain benefits, placing French law above European law and cutting financial contributions to Brussels — run counter to the bloc’s principles and rules, and they could affect the EU from within.

Observers see her quickly joining autocratic governments in Hungary and Poland in their efforts to defy the liberal-democratic ideals at the core of the EU. It could also boost far-right forces in Italy and Spain, which have picked up steam after periods of stagnation.

Enrico Letta, a former Italian prime minister and head of the Italian Democratic Party, said in an interview that his initial reaction to Le Pen’s wave of support in France was “fear”.

She remains the underdog and he said he believes she will not win. “But if it happened, it would mean the end of Europe,” he said. “I don’t think the EU would survive that.”

In Spain, the far-right Vox party recently reached a co-government settlement in the province of Castilla y León, north of Madrid, while Italy faces elections next year in which far-right populists stand a chance at a ruling coalition.

“I’m afraid of a knock-on effect, because it reminds me of what happened in 2016 to 2018, with the election of Trump,” Letta continued. “I am quite concerned that having Le Pen on the Élysée would have the same effect on populist and anti-European impulses that are already quite present [in European politics] and would get a very strong boost.”

Experts see Le Pen’s conciliatory position towards Moscow as complicating American and European efforts to isolate Putin. Le Pen opposes plans to cut Europe off from Russian oil and gas and could jeopardize the EU’s ban on Russian coal. Its stance could encourage the Kremlin to tie the bloc’s hands to further measures against Russia, should Putin deploy even more inhumane war tactics in Ukraine.

According to French research firm Mediapart, Le Pen’s 2017 campaign was funded in part by a loan from a Russian bank brokered by an ally of Putin. And, similar to Russia’s efforts to boost Trump, Moscow is said to have tried to aid Le Pen’s presidential bid that year by leaking harmful material about her then-and-current rival Emmanuel Macron.

For its current run, Le Pen’s campaign has secured a loan from a Hungarian bank whose shareholders include businessmen close to that country’s autocratic leader Viktor Orban, widely regarded as Putin’s strongest ally within the EU.

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Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Le Pen has sought to nuance her past relations with Putin, suggesting she has “changed her mind” about the Russian leader. She has portrayed her courtship to the Kremlin as simply part of her efforts to put French interests first and prevent Moscow from falling into China’s arms.

But observers say her platform would nevertheless be a gift to Moscow.

“If she wins, Putin wins,” Letta said. “And European integration will lose, because it will stop and go backwards. And populist, anti-European ideals will take root in other European countries.”

While Le Pen is behind Macron in most polls, Le Pen has gained steady momentum as the French grapple with inflation and declining purchasing power – bread-and-butter issues playing into its strengths.

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Observers say its populist domestic agenda could be curtailed by parliament, especially if its allies fail in June’s parliamentary elections. But traditionally, the French executive has had considerable power over foreign affairs — something much of the rest of Europe is panicking about.

In Germany in particular, there is a great fear that a Le Pen victory would drive a wedge between Berlin and Paris, who often together determine the direction of European policy.

In a campaign speech last week, Le Pen showed no love for the relationship. She promised to end joint defense projects with Germany because of “irreconcilable strategic differences”. She criticized Germany’s rejection of nuclear power, saying France would not support a German bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

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“We must all now rally behind Emmanuel Macron,” tweeted Michael Roth, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “It is either him or the fall of a united Europe. Sounds dramatic. But it is.”

Le Pen’s election could lead to an “EU meltdown,” Reinhard Bütikofer, an experienced MEP with the German Greens, told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. “It cannot function without a France that wants to move the EU forward.”

In Brussels, the capital of the EU, European diplomats see Le Pen’s rise as a surreal repeat of Trump’s victory and of Brexit, but this time in the heart of Europe.

Many cling to the hope that she will lose, as she has twice before. “I just can’t believe they would vote for Putin’s straw man,” said a European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“On the other hand,” the diplomat continued, “I couldn’t imagine anyone voting for Trump, or the British voting for Brexit.”

However, Le Pen’s far-right platform has created strange synergies with other parts of Europe, including Poland’s arch-conservative government, which has been fined by the EU for democratic setbacks. Warsaw is vehemently anti-Russian, but has nevertheless seen Le Pen as a strategic ally in his struggle with Brussels.

Meanwhile, in Central Europe, it is widely believed that Macron over the years courted the Kremlin and overplayed his hand in the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine by trying to personally calm Putin in Moscow. This month, after Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki compared Macron’s efforts with Putin to negotiating “with Hitler,” the notoriously blunt French leader responded by calling Morawiecki “a far-right anti-Semite who bans LGBT people.”

“By attacking Macron right now, they are… [effectively endorsing] Le Pen, contrary to Polish interests,” said Jacek Kucharczyk, head of the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs. “Her election would be a disaster for Poland because it would weaken Western unity. It is completely reckless and irresponsible [of the government] to use this as an opportunity to return to the European Union. It’s ideological shortsightedness.”

Still, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said France would be the biggest loser in a Le Pen victory.

“If she wins, France will be more sidelined in the European Union and NATO,” he said. “She could withdraw French troops from the Baltics. But you know, if Marine Le Pen is the president of France, maybe it’s a good thing they’re not in the Baltics.”

Rauhala reported from Brussels and Pitrelli from Rome. Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.

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