As the French Fifth Republic lurches toward the starting line of this year’s presidential election, the republic’s founder, Charles de Gaulle, seems almost to be sitting in the judge’s chair. Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen, the race’s two leading contenders, have each sought, in their way, the Gaullist imprimatur.
Whether the late general would bestow his approval on either of these candidates, particularly in light of their relationships with Russia, is questionable. Equally questionable is what this will mean for France’s ties to the United States.
As leader of the far-right Front National, Le Pen refuses the label Gaullist. Le Pen notes: “Between de Gaulle and me, there is the Algerian War.” Indeed, the FN’s old guard damns De Gaulle for what they consider his betrayal of French Algeria. But Le Pen nevertheless describes herself as “Gaulliene.” Her reason? De Gaulle was “the last head of state with a vision of France as free to choose her destiny.”
Fillon, the candidate for the neo-Gaullist party Les Républicains, has found other uses for the label. He used it to swat his primary rival Nicolas Sarkozy for the corruption cases hanging over his head: “Who could ever imagine General de Gaulle being questioned by the police?” Fillon has also used it as a flag in which to drape himself. Earlier in January he declared: “I am Gaullist and, to boot, Christian.” The declaration proved controversial, less because Fillon placed his Gaullist identity before his Christian one, and more because he had advertised himself as a Christian at all in the secular republic De Gaulle created.
Putin and Paris
Fillon and Le Pen’s efforts to cast themselves as Gaullist or as Gaulliene have collided with their public and private positions on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Both candidates herald a dramatic change in France’s relationship to Russia -- a promise to alter a relationship that nearly 60 years after the republic’s founding still bears De Gaulle’s imprint.
In her admiration for post-communist and post-democratic Russia, Marine Le Pen is a chip off the old block: Her father, Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, visited Moscow in 2005. There he called for the creation of a “Northern Realm [Espace Boréal]” uniting northern Europe and Russia. Though Le Pen fille has since evicted Le Pen père from the party, his particular brand of Russophilia remains. In 2011, she announced a project best labeled as Espace Boréal 2.0: the creation of a pan-European union with Russia and Switzerland (but, tellingly, without Turkey). More alarmingly, Marine Le Pen declared earlier this month that Putin’s seizure of Crimea was legal, insisting that the region was “an integral part of Russia.” Ukraine’s government proceeded to declare her persona non grata; Le Pen was unfazed. According to the French satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, it was no accident that her announcement coincided with her party’s efforts to negotiate a hefty loan of nearly 30 million euros from Russian banks. (This loan would follow one obtained in 2014 from Russian banks for 9 million euros.)
A Shift on Syria?
Will Le Pen’s support for Russia’s ruthless intervention in Syria add a few million to the loan? While that remains unclear, what is quite clear is Le Pen’s enthusiasm for political leaders considered to be war criminals by others. Long an advocate for an alliance between Assad’s regime, Russia, and France, Le Pen concedes that Assad might be authoritarian, but believes he is not a “barbarian.” She has also dismissed claims that Russian airstrikes were targeting non-ISIS rebels as “American propaganda aimed at undermining Vladimir Putin’s actions in Syria.”
Thanks to Le Pen’s many Russian affinities, L’Obs magazine recently graced her with the title “Putin’s vice-tsarina.” Is Fillon next in line? While he condemned the Russian and Syrian air strikes on Aleppo, he has oddly insisted that they were the result of the West’s “refusal to dialogue as much as possible with Russia.” Fillon executes a similar moral pivot on Russia’s complicity with Assad’s crimes, but wonders why “everyone kept silent when the Americans destroyed Iraq.”
Fillon will not be silent over the beneficial impact he thinks Putin’s actions have had in Syria -- “Russian intervention should be welcomed” -- and his belief that economic sanctions on Russia should be lifted. There is also a personal element to Fillon’s pro-Russian views: His relationship with Putin goes back to 2008, when both men served as prime ministers in their respective governments. They have met dozens of times, occasionally at Putin’s private dacha near Moscow, and according to Fillon’s biographer Jean de Boishue, the “two men hold one another in great esteem.” No doubt Fillon, should he become president, will echo his American homologue in asserting this relationship is an “asset.”
As for the Gaullist claims made by Fillon and Le Pen, the General would dismiss them out of hand. Though he portrayed himself as a realist and believed Moscow’s aims were driven not by Communist ideology but instead by Russian imperialism, De Gaulle had no illusions over the threat they posed to the West. He famously called for a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals,” but always insisted that the Urals had to come halfway -- not with tanks, but with treaties. When Hervé Alphand, the minister of foreign affairs, once asked what he should make of “the USSR’s smiles” toward France, De Gaulle replied that France must first learn if those smiles would be extended to Berlin and the United States -- a dictum that has since remained at the heart of French policy toward Russia. Should either Fillon or Le Pen move into the Elysée this spring, that policy may well come to an end.