Macron and Le Pen in a television presidential debate / Alamy

Macron Will Have to Do

Brian Stewart
Brian Stewart
7 min read

As we approach the denouement of France’s two-stage presidential election, it becomes clear that the race has been a missed opportunity to consolidate opinion in France, and perhaps Europe, against the malevolent rule of Vladimir Putin.

This may not greatly trouble the conscience of Emmanuel Macron, whose bid for re-election has been an unusually arduous affair. But the blunder is a microcosm of the feeble leadership he has demonstrated since entering the Elysée Palace. Under the banner of “the radical center”—rather more centrist than radical, one might say—Macron has steadily been drowned out by a cacophony of extremists on the Left and the Right. His appeal to French voters has been faute de mieux. To justify himself, Macron points only to the wretchedness of the alternatives on offer.

This closing argument has some force, but with more than 50 percent of voters having backed extremist parties in the first round, it has been found wanting. In the face of the greatest security threat in Europe since the end of the Cold War, the French governing class has woefully failed to rise to the occasion. Seldom has a word been uttered in criticism of, let alone outrage against, the Russian despot and his continuing depredations in Ukraine. This is especially true of the lurid reactionaries that fill the opposition and harbor a conspicuous soft spot for global outlaws.

The worst outcome may yet be prevented by the defeat of the national socialist—if that’s the term I want—Marine Le Pen, but her proximity to power is now too close for comfort. At the head of National Rally (formerly National Front) that long hosted Nazi collaborators, there can be no doubt that, if elected, Le Pen would transform France at home and shed its influence abroad. Her program is one of unstinting chauvinism that would abort longstanding alliances and abandon Europe to the hard men in the Kremlin. In this, she is an ultra-nationalist echo of the socialist alternative that she narrowly bested in the first round.

Whatever cosmetic changes she has made to her party over the years, Le Pen remains in the tradition of Charles Maurras, the ideologist behind the Action Française movement. Founded in 1899 to defend a decidedly Old World conception of “true France,” Action Française was grounded more in blood-and-soil than in the principles of the Enlightenment. Claire Berlinski’s mordant observations have shed light on the roots of this reactionary creed. The main change to this antique political orientation, she writes, is that an old paranoid fear of Jews has been replaced by a new paranoid fear of Muslims. For this quarter of the French electorate, no threat to France surpasses what it views as a civilizational clash with Islam, and Russia, with its pugnacious brand of Orthodox Christianity, may even be a bulwark against liberalism run amok.

The fact that France’s leading nostalgic nationalist is ardently defending a capacious Russian sphere of influence in the midst of Putin’s savage invasion of Ukraine underscores the oddity of the modern character of French nationalism. A decent and competent Left might point out, as Macron has belatedly done, that France stands to gain exactly nothing from an “alliance” with Putin’s dictatorship proposed by the likes of Le Pen. “I admire Vladimir Putin,” she once told the Russian journal Kommersant, adding that Europe’s economic woes offered “an opportunity to turn our back to the US and turn toward Russia.” Despite her recent efforts to conceal this fondness for the Russian strongman, she has parroted Kremlin talking points about the “completely stupid” EU sanctions against Russia and insists there had been “no invasion” of Crimea, which had “always been Russian.” She even insulted Ukraine’s (freely elected) government as the product of “a coup d’état.”

This leaves the incumbent President Macron as the only plausible champion of French values and the Atlantic alliance in this contest. Admittedly, for the last five years, Macron has been a rather careless steward of the Fifth Republic’s foreign policy. He has taken an active interest in boosting the European Union, with the predictable consequence of subverting Western cohesion. Instead of preparing his country and his continent for an era of renewed geopolitical competition, he has indulged the fantasy of transcending NATO, which he accused of suffering “brain death.” Macron also went out of his way to endorse a grand bargain with Moscow that invited (and deserved) ridicule even before Russian airpower and artillery laid waste to Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities. The fact that NATO has belatedly come to the assistance of the Ukrainians—and that Finland and Sweden are now anxiously preparing to join the military alliance—reveals the howling failure of Macron’s vision.

At the beginning of his term, Macron addressed the annual conference of French Ambassadors. The kernel of his message in this diplomatic setting was that any past bias against Russia could no longer obtain. “I know,” the president acknowledged, “that many of you made your careers working on dossiers whose every aspect fostered a mistrust of Russia.” But that mistrust, he went on, owed to a “series of misunderstandings.” It was time to “rethink the fundamentals.” His goal was to “build a new architecture” with Russia, “based on trust and security in Europe.”

Russia responded to all this with galloping malevolence. It has funded far-Right extremist movements in Western democracies (including Le Pen’s party) and disinformation campaigns during American and European democratic elections, and engaged in incessant cyberattacks, poisonings, assassinations on Western soil, and military aggression in Ukraine and Syria. This campaign to reassert Russia’s traditional sphere of influence has reached its apex with the grim attempt to reclaim its old colony in Ukraine by force. This ill-fated endeavor, and the related growth of a fierce martial patriotism in Ukraine, should provide ample reason for even the most hardened cynic in the Quai d’Orsay to cease efforts at mollifying the Kremlin until it relinquishes its territorial claims.

Of course, it’s risible to encounter declarations of nationalism from Western clients of an odious Russian despotism. Le Pen is thus no answer to French problems, let alone civilizational crises. But it’s wearisome at this late date that the radical center has acquitted itself so poorly. It has failed to rally to the defense of Europe, either materially or psychologically. In his new book, Yascha Mounk points out that diverse modern democracies have failed to cohere around a cultural and civic patriotism. Bereft of what Orwell dubbed this “atavistic emotion,” they can neither appreciate nor emulate the kind of mortar of trust and intense collective solidarity electrifying Ukraine today. While Kantian Europeans take to the streets with peace signs, Ukrainians are convinced that their hearth and home is worth fighting for.

For years, Western leaders looked in vain to Germany, Europe’s largest economy, to supply the moral leadership of Europe, even of the free world. This was not merely wrongheaded; in view of Germany’s bitter historical experience and related belief in the primacy of soft power, it was delusional. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, this confidence in German leadership remains in fashion even after Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine. This latest bout of aggression, it is said, has awakened Europe’s “sleeping giant” once and for all. But such a judgment remains premature.

In many ways, France was better suited to this role, but so far it has chosen not to play it. The blame for this rests squarely with the political center that Macron has long claimed and held with curiously little resistance. A lack of will not inadequate material conditions is hobbling France from wielding greater influence in Europe and beyond. What is stopping the renaissance of French vigor in world affairs—what Dean Acheson deemed early in the Cold War to be “irreplaceable in a world of free men”?

Consider energy policy. In the previous decade, with Russia bestriding its “near abroad” as a major power, Germany actually increased its energy dependency on the Russian state. Meanwhile, France has maintained its independence due to its heavy domestic production of nuclear energy. There is comparably little strain involved in France cutting off Russian imports. Indeed, France has announced a plan to build more than a dozen new nuclear reactors. So while green parties across the West remain in thrall to unattainable renewable fantasies, and Germany remains undecided about how quickly it can prudently disentangle itself from the Russian energy giant, the French demonstrate that clean energy need not come at the expense of sound moral and strategic calculations. Any French leader should make the case that Europe must break its dependence on Russia’s natural gas by the same means.

To his credit, President Macron has called attention to Russia’s enduring aggression in Ukraine, and pledged to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. To this end, he has boosted the French military presence in Romania—another Black Sea neighbor that Moscow seeks to coerce and overawe. But important voices suggest that Czechia and Slovakia have seized the strategic initiative by moving rapidly to arm Ukraine and thus represent the EU’s new radical center, not the old powers of Europe.

It need not continue to be this way. It has long been de rigueur for French politicians to declare their allegiance to “republican values,” and the Russian aggression in Ukraine presents an unbeatable test of this commitment. Needless to say, it cannot be discharged if voters elect a politician whose core ideology violates the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity that France has long championed. But if the incumbent is returned to office, he will need to show what those values mean in deeds as well as words.

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Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy.