On 7 February, two men sat at either end of a comically long table, a piece of furniture that’s since become a meme. It’s a pity that nothing else about the situation was funny. The meeting between Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron came as Russian troops were massing on the border with Ukraine, acting on Putin’s orders. His French counterpart was attempting to prevent them invading their neighbour. As we know, he failed.
Despite this, Macron has continued to reach out. In the past month the two leaders have spoken 11 times, four of these since the invasion. Macron still hasn’t been able to rein in Putin’s worst instincts, but while his attempts have failed diplomatically they seem to have worked well for him electorally.
In less than a month, France is due to go to the polls in the first round of voting for the presidency. Critics say Macron has been played by Putin, but that hasn’t hurt his reelection bid: his average poll numbers have risen from 25 per cent at the start of February to 30 per cent now, according to Politico’s poll of polls.
The war may have helped Macron by reflecting poorly on his rivals. Several are tainted by past closeness to Putin. Marine Le Pen, the nationalist whom Macron faced in the second round in 2017, met Putin before that election, when he assured her there would be no Russian meddling in French democracy. Her party was recently forced to destroy over a million leaflets decorated with a photo of her and Putin. This year’s other far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, has said Russia would “be the most reliable ally” over the UK, US and Germany. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leading left-winger, said before the invasion that France had a “duty to ensure Ukraine does not enter Nato”. All three have expressed a desire to withdraw France from Nato should they win.
Le Pen and Zemmour may also face a challenge from the surge in refugees making their way across Europe from Ukraine. Both have campaigned on anti-immigration platforms, but while the French have been hostile towards migrants in recent years, especially those from across the Mediterranean, an unprecedented 79 per cent now support France helping Ukrainians in distress, according to a poll from Ifop and Le Journal du dimanche.
Current polling numbers suggest Macron will face off against Marine Le Pen in the second round. Against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, she might just be the perfect opponent for him.
Photograph Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images