Contrary to all expectations it is now a virtual certainty that the centre right challenger to Marine Le Pen’s bid for the French Presidency will be Francois Fillon rather than the previous favourite Alain Juppe.
What is being widely overlooked amidst all the discussions of Fillon’s supposed ‘Thatcherite’ economic policies is that he is also a longstanding friend of Russia.
Whereas Juppe supports current French policy of seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Assad and of confronting Russia in Ukraine, Fillon has spoken out strongly against both policies. He has said that seeking President Assad’s overthrow is misguided whilst ISIS remains a threat, has described the EU’s sanctions against Russia as ‘inept and strategically devastating for our farmers’, and has welcomed a French parliamentary resolution calling for the ending of the sanctions.
Unlike Marine Le Pen, Fillon has also actually met with Russia’s President Putin and is his personal friend. There are even stories that the two men are on first name terms and that Putin gifted an old bottle of Mouton Rothschild from Russia’s Presidential cellar to Fillon by way of consolation for the death of his mother. What is beyond question is that Fillon attended Russia’s Valdai Forum and met Putin there in 2013.
Unlike Marine Le Pen, Fillon has no intention of taking France out of NATO or the EU or even the Eurozone. In contrast to Marine Le Pen, Fillon’s election to the French Presidency would not trigger a radical shift in international relations or a collapse of the institutions which have emerged in Europe since the Second World War.
Fillon’s pro-Russian positions are however longstanding and have been repeatedly and forcefully expressed. It is difficult to see him inclined to reverse them especially if Donald Trump in the White House is pursuing essentially the same policy of rapprochement towards Russia which he advocates.
Even if Fillon is able to see off the challenge of Marine Le Pen – which is by no means certain – his election as French president would further isolate Angela Merkel and would lose her France’s critical support for the anti-Russian sanctions policy.
It would also radically shift the balance in the Normandy Four format, in which the Russian, German, French and Ukrainian leaderships have been trying to negotiate a solution to the Ukrainian conflict. When meeting Putin in this format, Merkel and Poroshenko would know that in Fillon – their purported ally – Putin has a friend.
As it happens, it is possible that Fillon’s known opposition to the sanctions policy is the single most important reason why he won the primaries, emerging as the likely candidate for the French Presidency of the centre right. Western commentators have consistently underestimated the hardship that the sanctions policy has caused to farming communities in countries like France, where they play a disproportionate role in the political process.
Though policy towards Russia hardly featured in the primaries, it is by no means impossible that it was one reason why conservative rural French voters may have come out in the primaries in support of Fillon and against Juppe and Sarkozy.
As for Juppe – previously the universally expected choice of the centre right to take on Marine Le Pen – if as now seems certain he loses out to Fillon, he may care to reflect on a truth of the point I have previously made: a strong public anti-Russian position does not win a Western election and a politician who adopts it is taking out a passport to nowhere.