The US holds a key stake in France’s presidential election on Sunday, when voters in one of America’s oldest allies will choose between incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen.
The vote is viewed as a referendum on the close ties Macron has established between France and the rest of Western Europe and the United States, and Le Pen’s populist push for a more independent France.
Le Pen is seen as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has signaled there would be a shift in France’s policies on the Russian war in Ukraine if she is elected.
The US establishment is clearly hoping for a Macron victory, though the Biden administration publicly has said it is watching the election closely and focusing the contest is a decision for the French people.
“I’m just not going to get ahead of an election in a foreign country,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this month. “And obviously, we will watch it closely, and I’m sure we’ll have more to speak to once the results are concluded.”
Analysts say Marcon is likely to earn another five-year term, but Le Pen’s third attempt at the French presidency has surprised observers with its strength.
Le Pen faced off against Macron in 2017, and her campaign strategy at the time aligned itself, and capitalized on President Trump’s 2016 victory shock. Trump held back an official endorsement at the time but expressed support for her positions.
Her return to the runoff position in 2022 points to populist support for hard-right positions among a portion of the French population — and dissatisfaction with Macron.
A Le Pen win would be widely seen as a victory for Russia and a defeat for the United States and NATO.
“If [Le Pen] won, it would be the first major victory that Vladimir Putin has secured since his forces were checked at the outskirts of Kyiv,” said Ben Judah, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“It’s a very important election for the US,” he added, saying that a Le Pen victory would swap out Macron’s tested and respected leadership on the European and world stage “for a leader that would be one of the least experienced, least respected, and the least trusted.”
A Le Pen victory would also signal a rejection of a closer, more integrated European Union, which has played a key role in adopting measures to sanction Russia in lock step with the US, the United Kingdom and other countries rallied to the cause like Japan and Australia.
“The whole dynamic we’ve seen over the last few decades of the EU consolidating, and becoming more of a kind of single actor, more of a big player on the international scene, that will all go into reverse, from a process of integration to a process of disintegration in Europe,” Judah said.
While recent polls have Macron ahead of Le Pen by as many as 10 percentage points in advance of Sunday’s runoff election, his gains reflect what experts say is the politician’s strategy of seeking to appeal to the mainstream – moderating some of her most extreme views and promoting herself as a single, working mother concerned over sky-high inflation.
“Marine Le Pen tried to go more mainstream and direct her message toward blue collar French voters, and she tries to attract voters who may feel abandoned by the left,” said Laure Pallez, a former advisor for the French government who is active among the French diaspora in the US
“Her strong showing in the elections shows there is some public support in her positions. We can’t ignore it,” Pallez added.
The top issue for French voters is so-called “purchasing power,” the rise in cost of every-day goods, gas and energy. And while the French largely hold Russia responsible for launching a war in Ukraine, their own wallets have been pinched by western sanctions on Moscow.
Le Pen has seized on those anxieties as part of her campaign, while playing down her historical position as a “largely pro-Russia, pro-Putin, anti-American candidate,” Célia Belin, visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, said during a panel discussion.
“She has focused on purchasing power, socio-economic issues,” Belin said, and that focus has allowed people to “forget her sort of pro-Putin view.”
While Le Pen has condemned Putin for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she nonetheless advocates for a France more independent from Europe, the US and NATO – while the US and its allies have tight coordination among these nations as an essential bulwark in isolating Moscow and making Putin a pariah.
“Le Pen no longer directly proposes leaving the EU, or abandoning the Euro,” said Pallez, who still identified her as a “Euro-skeptic.”
Le Pen wants to reduce France’s contributions to the EU, leave the top-decision making council of NATO, increase oversight of imports to the country, and promote bilateral European ties – in particular with Hungary and Poland, two countries that are criticized as backsliding on democratic freedoms.
“Her political identity is more ‘Europe of strong, individual nations,'” Pallez said, referring to Le Pen’s vision that national laws hold more power than the consensus measures reached by the council of the European Union.
It’s an idea that matches policies advocated by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán or Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Pallez added.
While Le Pen has garnered more popularity, her strong showing is also a reflection of domestic anger towards Macron, who was criticized as prioritizing the war in Ukraine over French concerns.
Macron announced his candidacy for president the day before the official campaign deadline and with a “letter to the French.” It created a public perception that Macron viewed a presidential victory as guaranteed, and the election as “paperwork,” Belin said.
“This sort of high politics engagement has prevented him from really appearing as a national leader, caring about the French and their issues, and at some point, he has started to create resentment,” she added.
Pallez said the feeling of Macron’s indifference further enforced a disconnected feeling between the general public and the political elites.
“Like in the US, what the people are most concerned about and what the politicians talk about don’t necessarily match,” she said. “That creates mistrust toward the elite, and very fertile ground for populist movements.”