Dr Daniel Gordon is Senior Lecturer in European History at Edge Hill University, and the views expressed here are his own.
I arrived in France four days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was the first time in two and a half years I had crossed an international border, my longest absence from France for decades, and the first time I have ever had my passport stamped to enter the European Union. One of the few stamps on my last passport was a Ukrainian one: a relic of a 2010 visit to, amongst other sites of memory, Odessa, where in 1889 my Menshevik great-grandmother was born in a debtors’ prison on what is now the site of the city’s magnificent railway station, but to which my family never returned after the outbreak of war in 1914. Not surprisingly, in early March most people I spoke to in France, from Dordogne villagers to Parisian intellectuals, spontaneously talked about Europe’s latest war.
By contrast, the small matter of deciding Western Europe’s most powerful elected position seemed at best a secondary issue, eliciting remarkably little conversation compared to the equivalent stage before previous presidential elections. Of course, world events don’t stop happening just because there’s an election on in France. In April 1974, revolution broke out in Portugal just ten days before polling day. International events have sometimes been known to pose problems, or opportunities, for candidates. In March 1981, the pro-Soviet Communist candidate Georges Marchais was forced onto the defensive by state violence against Solidarność activists at Bydgoszcz in northern Poland. In 2002, the American events of 9/11 seven months before may well have had some effect on Jean-Marie Le Pen’s performance in the ‘earthquake’ of 21 April. But there is no precedent in the history of the Fifth Republic for an election so completely overshadowed so close to polling day by an international crisis. So will the election of 2022 be, as many are suggesting, a phantom election?
That France should be one of the few countries, like Turkey and Israel, to remain on speaking terms with both Russia and Ukraine, is historically overdetermined. While, as elsewhere in Europe, there is much sympathy in France with the plight of the Ukrainians, the brutal geopolitical logic of good relations with Russia as a counterbalance to other powers has tended to reasserted itself on French leaders, from the time of Louis XV and Peter the Great via the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 and Charles De Gaulle’s rapprochement with Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s, to Nicolas Sarkozy’s role in brokering the settlement between Russia and Georgia in 2008. It took a week’s absence in France to notice on my return just how monolithically – if understandably – one-sided, are responses to the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the UK. I could no longer, for example, watch Russia Today, now banned by the British authorities. RT was my guilty pleasure every Saturday evening in 2018-2019 for the simple reason that it provided more extensive coverage of the gilets jaunes, and especially the violence repeatedly inflicted on them by the French state, than any other channel on Freeview, framed of course in a crudely propagandistic narrative of the West in chaos. Trivial though it was compared to the obscene horrors inflicted by Putin on the people of Ukraine, this censorship fits into a long tradition of Russophobia in Britain. In 1939, my grandfather was rejected from the British Army, and in 1940 sacked from being an air-raid warden, because he was born in Russia. He was Jewish, and his family had left Odessa when he was one year old, some 29 years before the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Although RT has also been banned in France, the debate there does, for better or worse, appear more nuanced. French linguistic conservatism dictates that, in Paris, Kyiv is still Kiev. The irony of Macron benefitting from a ‘rallying around the flag’ effect is not only Putin’s brazen lie to him in February that he was not going to invade Ukraine, which might be thought to make Macron look foolish, but also that he had spent much of the past five years seeking a rapprochement with his Russian opposite number. As recently as the summer of 2019, he hosted Putin at his Bregançon summer residence, and declared his belief in a ‘Europe that goes from Lisbon to Vladivostok’.
The Gaullian overtones of such phrasing are also echoed by some of Macron’s opponents in the current election. On 10 March, Valérie Pécresse began her televised debate with Eric Zemmour, this election’s most absurdly over-hyped candidate, by contrasting l’esprit gaulliste with which Pécresse identified herself to l’esprit munichois which she sought to attach to Zemmour’s relationship with Putin. Similarly, on 18 March, the Green candidate Yannick Jadot would tell Zemmour that ‘The Europe that you bear … is that of Pétain and Hitler at Montoire’, referencing the notorious collaborationist handshake of 1940. Yet this was to walk into a trap set by Zemmour, keen as part of his sinister project of neo-Petainist revisionism – of which the most penetrating analysis I found on my visit is by the psychologist Judith Cohen-Solal in her book Zemmour et nous – to blur the boundaries between right and extreme right by presenting himself as a Gaullist (hence the appel du 18 juin– style microphone on Zemmour’s desk in his campaign videos.) Zemmour retorted to Pécresse that in 1944 De Gaulle met Stalin, and in 2006 Jacques Chirac, for whom Pécresse had herself worked, awarded the Legion d’Honneur to Putin. In an age when almost everyone pretends to be Gaullist, it is possible, if controversial, for favorable relations with Russian autocrats to be presented as a patriotically French endeavour.
So just how big an effect the Russian invasion – as opposed to the threat it poses to French living standards, already the number one preoccupation of voters even before 24 February – will have on voters remains to be seen. The poll ratings of Zemmour, the candidate most egregiously overt in his admiration for Putin’s revanchist nationalism, misogyny and homophobia, do appear to have taken a dip as a result of Putin’s latest actions. Reconquête!, the name coined by Zemmour for his party in December 2021, presumably intended for his ultra-right fanboys as a dog-whistle reference to the Christian Reconquista of Spain from Islam, now almost sounds like a slogan for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the unfortunate coincidence that Zemmour’s supporters, such as his youth wing, Génération Z, use the same letter ‘Z’ symbolism as those adopted more recently by those of Putin cannot have helped.
But this is not noticeably the case for other candidates also criticized for being soft on Russia. Marine Le Pen, her party bailed out by a loan from a Russian bank in 2014, for years seen as the preferred candidate of the Kremlin, performed an abrupt if limited U-turn, denying reports that she had withdrawn a campaign leaflet featuring a photo of her shaking hands with Putin. I could bear only a few minutes of Le Pen squirming on late night TV, questioned as why she apparently now supports Ukrainian refugees but vehemently opposed the arrival of refugees from the war in Syria – a reminder that 2022 is not the first time that Le Pen’s old ally has deliberately attacked civilian targets such as hospitals – so unconvincing in her denials of the obvious explanation that it is because the former are overwhelmingly white and Christian. One of the greatest dangers posed by Zemmour, who now portrays Le Pen as a leftist, is that by comparison she is made, falsely, to appear almost moderate.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also often criticised for his policy on Russia, appears if anything to have gained ground since 24 February. Over the years, Mélenchon’s default position of blaming NATO was nuanced by expressing solidarity with selected leftist opponents of Putin, in a similar way to how in the 1970s the French Communist Party would occasionally organise press conferences in Paris with Soviet dissidents such as the Ukrainian mathematician Leonid Plyushch, in order to demonstrate their Eurocommunism and rebut the ‘Solzhenitsyn effect’ initiated by domestic political opponents. But Mélenchon has rarely seen an international crisis he could not find some way of pinning on the United States, and the current one is no exception. While Mélenchon might protest that he is no supporter of Putin, like him he was born in the early 1950s, so his is also a worldview forged during the Cold War. A teenage far left activist at the height of the Vietnam War, Mélenchon was elected the youngest Senator in France when Reagan was still waging the ‘Second Cold War’, so the notion that American imperialism might no longer be the greatest threat to world peace does not really compute for him. He tends to proffer token denunciation of Putin, as a mere prelude to either lengthy lectures on geopolitics that place the underlying blame firmly in the camp of NATO, from which he advocates France’s withdrawal, or changing the subject to the social question in France.
A case in point was Mélenchon’s 20 March speech in the Place de la République at the closing rally of his ‘March for a Sixth Republic’ [Link to Marche et meeting pour la 6e République à Paris – YouTube] (a now traditional feature of his presidential campaigns, the March seeks to demonstrate that, if the Right can dominate the airwaves, he can mobilise the largest crowds in the streets). It began promisingly with a dedication to the Ukrainian resistance, but then dropped this entirely for domestic politics: it was a smart move to offer a choice between retiring at 60 with him, and 65 with Macron. If the President is often guilty of patronisingly ‘Macronsplaining’ his grandiose vision to the French electorate, than Mélenchon might be accused of what Ukrainian and Polish leftists call ‘Westsplaining’ the Russia-Ukraine crisis (see The Western Left doesn’t understand Putin – or the world outside the US | openDemocracy or Fuck leftist westplaining – Freedom News). The pugnacious but erudite Mélenchon can certainly give Macron or Zemmour a run for their money in any ‘mansplaining’ contest. In 2018 I heard him deliver to his Corbynite comrades in Liverpool a speech of such philosophical abstraction that it was impossible to imagine any British politician giving it. As for autumn 2021’s televised showdown between Mélenchon and Zemmour, one evening I settled down on the sofa to watch it replayed, and fell fast asleep.
Conversely, those candidates who have taken a firmly anti-Putin line have not necessarily prospered. In marked contrast to her successful re-election as Mayor of Paris less than two years ago, Anne Hidalgo’s presidential campaign is still sunk without trace, despite her fidelity to the Socialists’ tradition of suspicion towards Russian imperialism. Jadot, whose party can trace some of their intellectual origins to the anti-totalitarianism of the Seventies, is fareing only relatively better. The embarassing continued public spat between Jadot and Sandrine Rousseau, the radical eco-feminist whom the German-style realo only narrowly defeated in the Green primary, suggests that the French Greens cannot even pass the most basic test of remaining united for the duration of an election campaign. On 1 March, as the French, European and Ukrainian flags fluttered in the early spring sunshine over Bordeaux town hall, I drank a citron pressé with an advisor to (though not a member of the same party as) Green city mayor Pierre Hurmic, who when asked about the presidential election responded that Macron is going to win, and everyone on the Left knows it – with the exception of Mélenchon’s supporters, who are still full of illusions – so the only question to be decided at the first ballot is the relative strength of each party in the opposition to Macron over the next 5 years.
This analysis was born out by the way that those leftwingers I subsequently spoke to seemed to be deciding their votes on the internal politics of the Left: for Hidalgo if one had an intellectual and sentimental attachment to social democracy, so wanted the Socialist Party to survive; for Philippe Poutou on the extreme Left if, by contrast, one wanted to ensure the death of the Socialists, and the failure of the Communists’ Fabien Roussel, deemed to have crossed a red line by demonstrating with the police in 2021. Some indication of the sense of despair on the Left was given in January this year by one early stalking-horse, Pierre Larrouturou, who went on hunger strike for Left unity with a placard reading ‘I don’t want to be President, I want a future for my children’; at this rate, given the failure of all attempts at unity, Larrouturou’s children may indeed lack a future. The parlous state of the mainstream Left today is a little reminiscent of the far Left circa 1995-2007: slugging it out amongst themselves for who can triumphantly come sixth with 5% of the vote, then recoup their campaign expenses and boast that more than a million people voted for their programme – which they have no chance of implementing, because the election has been decided elsewhere. By the standards of the far Left, that level of support constituted hitting the big time; for parties in government only a few years ago, it means a continued slide into irrelevance (at least nationally: the old parties survive far more in municipal and regional politics). By contrast, the few Macron voters I know had decided on the basis of not caring about Left/Right ideology, and on Macron’s image as an energetic individual who is in favour of hard work and gets things done.
On 6 March I spoke to one of two Green activists handing out leaflets in the popular Sunday market in the Place des Fêtes in north-eastern Paris. When I introduced myself as a member of the Green Party in England (the existence of which came as a surprise) and asked ‘Comment ça va, la campagne?’ he responded ‘Ca va pas’, attributing this to the unwillingness of the French to change, in a country with the least windfarms in Europe. Drinking coffee outside at a nearby café to the sound of bells from a Catholic church, I failed to notice that behind it there is a Ukrainian Orthodox church, accepting solidarity donations. Walking down through Belleville, I spotted another tiny handful of leafleters, this time Communists, appropriately enough in the Place Henri Krasucki – named after the Polish-born Communist trade leader who in the 1980s, a bit like some French politicians today, was politically embarrassed by repression in Eastern Europe. Unsurprisingly for this territory of the Left, the streets above the Parc de Belleville were festooned with anti-Macron and anti-Pécresse posters, with some competition evident for wallspace between Roussel and Mélenchon flyposterers.
After lunch in Belleville with some of the anti-racist activist interviewees from my book Immigrants and Intellectuals, I boarded metro line 11 to visit Douce France [link to MEDITERRANEO – Algérie, le patrimoine méconnu des chansons de l’immigration – YouTube) ], an exhibition at the Musée des Arts et Métiers about the music of Algerian emigrants in France. Centred around the late great Rachid Taha, Douce France includes the opportunity to perform karaoke to Taha’s version of Ya Rayah, the classic lament of immigrant woe. I headed on foot into the Marais, where in the Rue des Rosiers I bought bagels and a bande dessinée about the Nazi-hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld. Outside St Paul metro station, I caught sight of a large posse of around thirty mainly male ‘Les jeunes avec Macron’, with a self-satisfied air, taking a group selfie before proceeding to strike into the Marais to leaflet the awaiting public in this most bourgeoisified part of central Paris, once home to working-class Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. What kind of young person gives out leaflets in support of the government? Here, perhaps, were the Macronist deputies of tomorrow, and it would not take a psephological genius to guess which of the activists I had seen that day are more likely to win.
Foreign policy is thus one aspect of a general problem for other candidates seeking to play the ‘sensible grown-up’ card against the populisms of Zemmour, Le Pen and Mélenchon: that Macron, master of populist anti-populism, has already monopolised this role. Pécresse’s biggest problem is that voters seeking a competent president of the Centre-Right are vulnerable to the perception that they already have one. Macron’s position on Ukraine is probably neither too bellicose (hence the long phone calls to Putin) nor too pacifist (hence his despatch of a token few hundred chasseurs alpins to bolster NATO positions in Romania) for where much of French opinion is. One evening, I was relieved on returning to my hotel room after a long day in the archives to see that the TV headlines were that ‘France is not at war with Russia’. In fact few candidates could claim to be innocent of any links with Russia, for they used to advertise them. Back in 2017, Jean Lassalle, the small-town mayor from the Pyrenees, boasted that as a result of a chance meeting on a vodka-fuelled night out in 1970s Moscow, he got to sing with the Red Army Choir, in the Bolshoi Theatre in front of Leonid Brezhnev. Even Hidalgo has in the past cooperated normally with her opposite number, the Mayor of Moscow.
But perhaps the most intriguing case is that of Pécresse. Since becoming a part-time academic, every week I do some voluntary work for a local cooperative, hoovering up after a community bread-making session. One day a couple of months ago, the vacuum cleaner I normally use was broken, so I looked in the cupboard and found … a Kärcher. For anyone who follows French politics, and can remember Nicolas Sarkozy when, at the time of the riots of 2005, he was Interior Minister and thought every morning while shaving about becoming President, this wasn’t just a vacuum cleaner, this was a metaphor for the deepest fears of bourgeois France. Kärcher’s most powerful model of cleaner was successfully appropriated by Sarkozy as a symbol for the kind of zero-tolerance policing he wanted to sweep out crime and disorder from the multiethnic banlieues. Wandering the streets of Odessa in 2010, I noted in my journal ‘the ‘Odessa Kärcher Center’ that sells the high-pressure hose made famous by Sarkozy in the 2005 riots, an appropriate metaphor perhaps for the airbrushing of the Soviet period underway in Odessa’. I was thinking of examples like the 2007 replacement of the statue of the mutinous sailors on the Battleship Potemkin with a statue of Catherine the Great [link to Ukraine: Catherine the Great Monument / Monument to the Founders of Odessa in Odesa (contestedhistories.org)]. I didn’t realise it at the time, but apparently the Potemkin Steps had literally been cleaned with a Kärcher. It was part of a broader project by the German company, keen to rescue their image from misappropriation by French politicians (and also perhaps from dubious aspects of their own history, like Kärcher’s production of heaters for Luftwaffe fighter planes), cleaning up their brand reputation by restoring historic monuments around the world such as Egypt’s Colossi of Memnon.
On 6 January this year, Pécresse sought to repeat Sarkozy’s feat by saying, ‘We’ve got to bring out the Kärcher again. François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron put it away in the cellar for more than 10 years.’ But actually the first candidate to get their Kärcher out of the cellar this time was Zemmour, who in November 2021 said of Sarkozy’s time in office ‘They promised Kärcher but we got Kouchner’ (a reference to Sarkozy’s big-tent inclusion of figures from the Left like Bernard Kouchner). By contrast, claimed Zemmour, if he said he was going to use a Kärcher, that meant he would actually do so. Once again, where the extreme Right leads, the mainstream Right follows: in that part of the spectrum, the first ballot has become an unedifying contest for who can promise to kick the most foreigners out.
Yet it might also be argued that since 24 February, Pécresse has aimed a Kärcher at her own Russophile past. Back in 2016, Pécresse sought to spice up her image away from being a conventional product of the French bourgeoisie, by revealing to Le Monde that in 1982, at the age of 15, she spent a summer at a Communist youth camp in Yalta singing the Internationale, and returned the following year to another camp near Leningrad. This was, Pécresse explained, the only way at the time one could get to learn Russian, which she had been inspired to do by reading Dr Zhivago. The nuns who taught the then Valérie Roux at her Catholic school in Neuilly (the posh suburb of Paris which, the year she went to Leningrad, elected Sarkozy as mayor) supplied the teenager with Bibles to smuggle to Soviet refuseniks. (This aspect of Pécresse‘s story is a little odd, given that the usual use of the term refusenik refers to Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate to Israel. One can only speculate. Was it aimed at the lesser-known subset of refuseniks from other persecuted groups such as Ukrainian Catholics? Weren’t Catholics thin on the ground in Yalta and Leningrad? Or was it missionary work, trying to convert Jews and atheists to Christianity? Either way, why hasn’t Pécresse said more about it? So as not to offend Jewish or secular voters on the Right by appearing too much of a practising Catholic to lead a secular Republic, like her predecessor as Les Républicains candidate François Fillon?).
A biography of Pécresse by the journalist Hubert Coudurier notes that in 1991, as a student at the Ecole Normale d’Administration, Pécresse did an internship at the French Embassy in Moscow, and travelled all around the Soviet Union (apparently her duties included getting tickets at the Bolshoi for a young Michel Barnier). At this point, the story gets murky, for according to Coudurier, during her internship Pécresse met a KGB agent called Sergei Jirnov, who, under the cover of learning French at the embassy, stalked her with a view to obtaining information or even starting a romantic relationship. Some on the extreme Right have tried to start a rumour that Jirnov, who later claimed asylum in France, succeeded in recruiting Pécresse to the KGB. In addition to the sexist overtones of such claims, becoming a politician would surely be a poor choice of cover story for a real spy seeking to fly beneath the radar. Moreover, the notion that a rightwing anti-Communist from the richest town in France, a promising career ahead of her, should wish to jump on board the sinking ship of the Soviet state in, of all years, 1991, a time of food shortages, coups and disorder, is, to say the least, implausible. One Azerbaijani website has gone further, suggesting even more implausibly that back in 1982 Yuri Andropov himself was possessed with such powers of foresight that he decided to recruit the 15 year old schoolgirl as a spy, anticipating the collapse of the Soviet Union with a view to ensuring future foreign leaders sympathetic to Moscow.
It is possible that a wish to counter such conspiracy theories have played a role in Pécresse’s opportunistic change of tack on Russia. Whereas until recently Pécresse was still in favour of dialogue with Putin, by contrast she now advocates a tough line, heading straight to the Ukrainian embassy as the invasion approached. This has the advantage of clearly demarcating herself on foreign policy from Le Pen and Zemmour, even as she seeks to compete with them on domestic policy (vote for me, dear voters of the classic Right, if you want the Kärcher but without the Kremlin). We have therefore seen the reappearance of another part of Pécresse’s narrative that perhaps sits more easily with the new line. As Higher Education Minister in 2010, Pécresse visited Russia as part of a government delegation with Fillon, the then Prime Minister, who attempted to break the ice with his hosts by pointing that Pécresse can speak Russian. At this point, Putin apparently became suspicious at the idea of a westerner fluent in Russian, asking within earshot whether Pécresse was a French secret service agent. This story might handily position Pécresse as tough on national security, someone whom even Putin is afraid of. On the other hand, given that Fillon is now notorious for his business interests in Russia – even after 24 February he was tardy to follow the general trend of Western businesspeople seeking to save their own skins by resigning from the boards of Russian companies – for Pécresse, this particular Kärcher risks backfiring.