This article originally appeared on November 1st, 2016 in Foreign Affairs.
The United States is not the only Western country in which Russia is featuring prominently in electoral politics. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia is also a hot topic in the French presidential campaign. In the lead up to the election in spring 2017, nearly all of the opposition parties—whether on the right, far right, or far left—have bemoaned the degradation of ties with Russia under the government of President François Hollande, arguing that it breaks with France’s tradition of diplomatic engagement and political dialogue with Moscow and that it is detrimental to French economic interests. Some politicians from these parties have also expressed, on international issues such as Ukraine or Syria, views sympathetic to the Kremlin.
The pro-Russian stances of France’s fringe parties do not really come as a surprise: populists in the United States and Europe, from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to British politician Nigel Farage or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have voiced their admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The evolution of France’s main conservative party, the Republicans, which is currently leading the presidential race, is more puzzling, however. Some of its key leaders, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who in the late 2000s were seen as Atlanticists, now appear more sympathetic to Moscow’s positions than they were before. And this evolution comes at a time when diplomatic relations between Europe and Russia have deteriorated considerably over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Is it simply electoral posturing and opposition politics, or does it reveal a more profound shift? In any case,the Kremlin has happily fueled the fire through public declarations, sometimes implicitly taking up some of the arguments of France’s right.