Eastern Influence

How Putin Won French Conservatives

The party led by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is moving into Moscow's orbit. And it has everything to do with domestic politics.

08.18.15 5:00 AM ET

Last month, a delegation of 10 French members of parliament, mainly from the center-right main opposition party Les Républicains visited Russia and Crimea in a trip destined to “understand how the population really lives” and fight “disinformation from Western media.” The visit was organized, and apparently funded, by the “Russian Foundation for Peace,” an organization headed by Leonid Slutsky, a Duma member of the ultra-nationalist LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party. Slutsky, who has been sanctioned by the E.U. and U.S., praised the visit as “the largest delegation of Western politicians and parliamentarians since the “Crimean Spring.” 

In France, the trip caused controversy. It was condemned by the French Foreign Minister, who said he was “shocked,” while the National Assembly tried to prevent the MPs from undertaking the journey. Even the chairman of the France-Russia “friendship group” at the National Assembly, the socialist Chantal Guitted, indicated in a press release “this kind of initiative is contrary to republican traditions and harm the action of French diplomacy.”

During the trip, MPs defended the Crimea annexation, claiming its inhabitants were “happy to be back into Russia” and “relieved not to experience the war.” An image of a senator buying in Moscow a T-shirt saying “Obama, you’re a douchebag” in Cyrillic added ridicule and insult to the debate.

Russia’s outreach to right-wing and left-wing populist movements all over Europe has been well reported. In France, Marine le Pen’s National Front has received a $11.7 million loan from a Russian bank, as an apparent reward for her far-right party’s support of Russian stances in the Ukrainian conflict. But is striking to see pro-Putin sentiment spreading in such spectacular fashion in a mainstream West European center-right party.

Part of it can be explained by foreign policy differences. The MPs claim to defend the traditional Gaullist tradition of “independent” foreign policy balancing between Moscow and Washington. French foreign policy under Sarkozy and Hollande has adopted a more pragmatic attitude towards Washington with steps such as the reintegration of NATO’s military command in 2009 and more hawkish stances on issues such as Iran and Syria.

Jacques Myard, an MP who was part of the Russian trip (and an earlier trip to meet Bashar al-Assad in Syria), told me he saw it as an acknowledgement of “reality principles,” rather than the “postures” of French diplomacy, adding “Putin is open to dialogue” and that “we should stop saying Putin is like Stalin.” Myard, who describes himself as “neither pro-American nor pro-Russian, but pro-French,” sees French diplomacy held hostage by “ultra-Europeans in Poland and the Baltics” and “American ukaz.” In the same vein, a MP tweeted from Russia: “France has no autonomous diplomacy, we are the zealous servers of American Empire and have no autonomous thinking.” Such positions are but a caricature of Gaullist attitude, which allowed a more flexible defense of French interests, but kept an unmitigated loyalty towards the Alliance in key moments such as the Cuban missile crisis. 

But that doesn’t matter much. Beyond the foreign policy dimension, the trip underscores the ideological divisions and ambiguities within the French right back home.

As most of the debate for the next presidential primary in 2016 focuses on the personalities of the leading candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, little attention is being paid to major debates regarding European construction, labor market reform, or integration. Meanwhile, public conversation is gradually being dictated by populists of all stripes tapping into the mood of national anguish. Here, foreign policy and domestic values become intertwined, in a unusual manner in a country where consensus over major foreign policy orientations is often praised. In fact, support for Putin has become part of an ideological package of a part of the French conservative right, embodied by the best-selling book The French Suicide by right-wing editorialist Eric Zemmour.

Tapping into a mood of national angst and obsession with decline, Zemmour describes a country whose elites have fallen to liberalism, American pop culture, and multiculturalism, allowing immigrants, especially Muslims, to develop their own culture in impunity. Zemmour can in no way claim to be a foreign policy expert. Yet, he “admires” Putin. In a debate with May 68 leader turned Green politician Daniel Cohn Bendit, Zemmour went further, saying he’d rather be led by Putin than Cohn Bendit.

As U.S.-style liberalism and Brussels bureaucrats become the enemy, Putin the strongman appears as the bulwark of conservative values and national sovereignty. As Hollande appears as a weak and indecisive president to his opponents (notwithstanding that he has been much more hawkish on issues like Syria than Obama), fascination for tough leaders is on the rise. This extends beyond Russia and encompasses other such strongmen, like Assad. In March, three members of parliament—including one who was part of the Crimea trip—visited Syria to express their support for the regime in Damascus.

Joseph Bahout, a French Visiting Fellow at Carnegie in Washington, an expert on the Levant, sees a clear link between ideological divides and foreign policy positions: “Besides being completely deluded on bloody dictators as being ‘the solution’ against radicalism or jihadis—something that completely fails to see to which extent these same autocrats are the root cause of extremism and how their survival feeds it!—the right-wing ‘old Europe’ types seem to have developed a pathological fascination for ‘strongmen’ archetypes; as if oriental potentates were the mirror substitute for what they perceive and live as a ‘western political emasculation’… “In doing so,“ adds Bahout, they “exactly fall in the trap set by these same cynical regimes, one that confronts their Western interlocutors.”

The absence of reaction to the trip is telling. In private, party leaders either share their embarrassment or try to underplay the real impact pointing that no major party figure took part in it. Yet, this silence has allowed a slippery slope of provocative actions within the party destined to normalize pro-Russian sentiments and, along the way, convergence with the extreme right.

The delegation to Russia and Crimea was led by Thierry Mariani, a transports minister under Sarkozy and now MP representing the French living abroad, in a constituency including Russia and Ukraine. In 2010, Mariani founded a group of 42 MPs within the center-right UMP (now renamed Les Républicains), initially to lobby in favor of tougher measures on immigration, law and order, and the defense of French identity. However, since the 2012 presidential election, the Droite Populaire has focused most of its efforts on foreign policy issues, especially Russia, multiplying provocative statements and events.

Mariani has echoed many Russian positions on the Ukraine conflict, comparing the seizing of Crimea with the intervention in Kosovo, denouncing the “fascists” in Kiev or claiming the suspension of the Mistral delivery to Russia would weaken French trade credibility in other negotiations such as selling the Rafale to India (it didn’t). The movement organized a series of panels focusing on foreign policy issues (Russia, Serbia, Europe, etc.) opening their doors to dubious analysts, mostly popular on far-right blogs, but also such unlikely figures as the foreign minister of Republika Srpska or the 92-year-old former socialist foreign minister Roland Dumas, who had just gone through a controversy for expressing the view that Prime Minister Manuel Valls was under the “Jewish influence” of his wife. Mariani is being emulated in the European Parliament where another former conservative minister, Nadine Morano, just created a 15-member group called “For a New Dialogue with Russia.”

Sarkozy, the current chairman of Les Republicains after coming out of a two-year retirement, has largely embraced this shift. In a speech earlier this year, he supported most of the Kremlin’s rhetoric, claiming: “The separation between Europe and Russia is dramatic. That Americans wish for it is their right, and their problem,” adding that “Crimea can’t be blamed for choosing Russia.”

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Sarkozy mostly blames the European leadership for waiting “a year” before directly engaging the Russian president, contrary to his own action as French president during the 2008 Georgian conflict. Sources close to the former president state that “this initiative only engages [the MPs]” and that, while Sarkozy supports the dialogue with Moscow, the trip to Crimea “does not serve this objective.” As a sign of how the conversation has shifted these last years, when running for president in 2007, Sarkozy cultivated the image of a friend of the United States, famously saying, “I’d rather shake Bush’s hand than Putin’s.”

This trend is starting to make some leaders of Les Républicains uncomfortable. In April, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, a favorite of the polls for the next presidential election, denounced in April an “access of acute Russophilia” in the French right. For Arnaud Danjean, a member of the European Parliament who headed its Defense subcommittee for five years: “Through the fascination for Putin, there is a real philosophical and ideological pull-back, namely a rejection of political liberalism.” But party leaders and spokespersons have kept an embarrassed silence over this parliamentary delegation.

A sign that there is little to be gained in appearing to support European allies? Putin has managed to make himself a hero for populists all over Europe. That his message is getting traction into more respectable parties should be a matter of concern for increasingly marginalized pro-European liberals.