Unlike the British election, which interests them not at all, the Russians are following the French election closely.
President Putin will never say publicly who he wants to win the French election. If pressed he will say – rightly – that it is none of his business, and that he will work with whoever the French people elect for their President. I suspect he even says this in private to his officials.
In the privacy of his Kremlin office or in his office in Novo Ogaryovo, during the solitary meditative periods which like all successful leaders Putin likes to engage in, Putin however undoubtedly asks himself which of the four front-runners – Fillon, Le Pen, Mélenchon, and Macron – would suit Russia best. I have no doubt what his answer is: Fillon.
This may come as a surprise to many people, who assume that Le Pen or Mélenchon – both hostile to the US, Germany and the EU, both in favour of close relations with Russia, both supportive of Russia’s stand in Ukraine (Le Pen especially so), and both opposed to sanctions – would suit Putin and Russia better.
Le Pen in particular has spoken out strongly of recognising Crimea as part of Russia and in support of the people of the Donbass, and has made no secret of her strong support for better relations with Russia. Indeed her foreign policy positions on many issues are all but identical to those of Putin and Russia. Indeed there is a vocal campaign in the West to paint her as “Putin’s candidate” and to say that he bankrolls her.
In reality, though Putin must like many of things Le Pen and Mélenchon say, they are almost certainly not his preferred choice for French President.
From Putin’s point of view the problem that either Le Pen or Mélenchon poses is that it is far from clear if they won the election that they would be able to consolidate their positions and do successfully any of the things they say they want to do. In both cases their election would be bound to trigger passionate resistance from the French and European establishments and from a part of the French population, which could easily spill over into economic destabilisation, protests and crisis.
Putin does not want a France wracked by crisis. Nor – contrary to what many say – does he want France to pull out of NATO or the EU, or to have Europe in crisis. At this point in Russia’s history what Putin wants is stability in Europe and France.
In the case of Europe, the EU is still Russia’s main trading partner and is likely to remain so for some time. It is not in Russia’s economic interest that it break up or become destabilised, which would only cause more problems for Russia’s economy at a time when it is coming out of recession.
More importantly, Putin and his advisers much be concerned that an uncontrolled crisis in Europe would have unpredictable consequences. Given the level of Russophobia in Europe a crisis might easily lead to a situation in Europe more dangerous for Russia than the present very unsatisfactory but nonetheless stable one. This after all was what happened during the great world crisis before the Second World War, when the hostile but peaceful Europe of the 1920s was replaced by an even more hostile but far more violent and aggressive Europe in the 1930s.
What Putin wants is a strong France in a stable Europe able to counter-balance US and German influence within the EU. However he wants it to be a France which has turned its back on the geopolitical neocon/neoliberal ‘regime change’ Atlanticist adventurism that France has followed during the Sarkozy and Hollande era – which has had such calamitous results in Libya, Ukraine, Syria and countless other places, and which has brought Europe’s relations with Russia to the point of crisis – and which has returned to its traditional foreign policy of seeking to balance US and German influence in Europe by maintaining close and friendly relations with Russia.
This was the French foreign policy followed by De Gaulle, Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac, and at this present point in Russian history – with the process of Eurasian construction still very much a work in progress – it is the French foreign policy that suits Russia best.
The person who epitomises this foreign policy best and who is most likely to carry it out is François Fillon, who has the further advantage in Putin’s eyes of being someone who – unlike Le Pen and Mélenchon – Putin knows well and likes. For that reason he is the person Putin would most want to see President of France.
Fillon has pitched his foreign policy positions at precisely the level Putin currently wants. He is not threatening a potentially destabilising diplomatic revolution such as the ones promised – or threatened – by Le Pen and Mélenchon. He has however made very clear his strong disagreement with the Atlanticist ‘regime change’ policies of the Sarkozy and Hollande era, and his support for a rapprochement with Russia.
Fillon has also spoken of lifting EU sanctions against Russia. Contrary to conventional wisdom in the West, this is not however a priority for Putin or Russia.
On the one hand lifting the sanctions would hand the Russia a very considerable political and diplomatic victory, and they would no doubt savour it. However that must be counter-balanced against the fact that lifting the sanctions would put pressure on the Russians to reverse the protectionist measures they have taken in response to them – such as the ban on food imports from the EU – which have been so beneficial to their economy.
In the privacy of his Kremlin office and in his office in Novo Ogaryovo I suspect Putin not only thinks this but in this case actually says it quite openly to his officials, and that he and they on balance would prefer the sanctions to stay, foregoing the ephemeral pleasures of a diplomatic triumph in return for the tangible and long-lasting economic benefits they bring. I cannot help but wonder whether the repeated statements by Russian officials that they expect the sanctions to stay might actually be a reflection of this.
Certainly if the choice is between maintaining the sanctions and a cut-back in French and EU support for the Maidan regime in Ukraine and regime change in Syria, I have no doubt Putin would prefer to keep the sanctions in return for a cut-back in French and EU support for the Maidan regime in Ukraine and for regime change in Syria. Moreover in the case of such a clear-cut choice I have no doubt Putin would be willing to say it publicly.
All this clearly points to Fillon as Putin’s preferred choice as the next President of France. I suspect that this is well understood within France’s and Europe’s Atlanticist establishment, which is why there has been such a sustained attempt to destabilise Fillon by cobbling together a ‘scandal’ to stop him.
Before concluding this discussion, which may surprise and disappoint some people, I would make two further points:
Firstly, Putin’s undoubted preference for Fillon reflects Russia’s national interests.
This is not identical to France’s or Europe’s interests. Those who think that one of the other candidates – Le Pen, Mélenchon or even Macron – is more right for France, Europe or indeed the world, have no need to change their views because of what Putin thinks.
Secondly, whilst I have no doubt that Putin considers Fillon the optimal choice for French President from the point of Russia’s current national interest, it is important to say that this may not always be so, and indeed it may not be so for much longer.
As the Russian economy strengthens, as the global positions of the Russian-Chinese alliance strengthen, as the process of Eurasian construction accelerates, and as what old-fashioned Russians still like to call ‘the correlation of forces’ in the world changes, Russian national interests concerning Europe and France will change. At that point it may be that someone like Le Pen or Mélenchon will suit Russia better. However that is not the situation now.