2017, the Year of Franco-Russian Rapprochement?

With the victory of François Fillon in the presidential primaries, France might elect a president in 2017 who is open to re-thinking the nation’s strained relationship with Russia.

Sat, Dec 3, 2016
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Pictured (left-right): François Fillon, a presidential candidate from the Republicans party, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

As France analyzes the final results of the Republicans’ primaries, it seems increasingly apparent that the epoch of sanctions and mutual recrimination between Russia and continental Europe is gradually drawing to a close.

As François Fillon received the upper hand in the Republicans’ primaries with some aplomb (66.5 percent against Alain Juppé’s 33.5 percent), the presidential showdown in 2017 is increasingly likely to sweep into power a Russia-friendly candidate intent upon altering Europe’s seemingly inert geopolitical status quo.

Fillon is the epitome of a leader who could find a way to cooperate with Russia. Gaullist in his foreign policy (both his parents were committed Gaullists), liberal in his economic agenda, and conservative in his social stances, he is very much a representative of the French political establishment, as opposed to his most likely rival in the 2017 Presidential elections, Marine Le Pen, who is still attempting to rid her National Front party of extremist deviations that her father’s 43-year long leadership tenure has entailed.

Fillon has previously worked as a regular parliamentarian, Senator and Minister of Information Technologies, Labor and National Education. As well, he served a five-year stint as former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Prime Minister. This combination of a pro-Russian stance and a proven political track record sets Fillon apart from the rest of Western European political leaders, where Russophilia is generally reserved for candidates with minimal government experience.

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Fillon navigates the stormy sea

Oftentimes Fillon’s ostensibly pro-Russian stance has drawn the ire of his fellow members of Les Républicains. Alain Juppé, who has a reputation of being a staunch Atlanticist, has warned against the latest “acute Russophilia” and recommended that Fillon avoid excessive (consumption) of vodka when reasoning about his counterparts.

Oddly enough, the French Socialists currently prefer to level their criticism at Fillon’s social policy measures, such as his intentions to remove 500,000 civil servant posts and to increase the retirement age to 65 years. This, however, does not mean that Fillon’s pro-Russian stance will not be used against him – it most certainly will, only at a later stage after the current agenda is sufficiently promoted.

The Republicans’ general line towards a closer alignment with Moscow has been in the makings for quite some time. It was Thierry Mariani, a member of the Republicans, who first visited Crimea in 2015 as a representative of a non-far-right European political party. And it was the Republicans who managed to ram through non-binding resolutions in the French National Assembly and Senate, calling for a lift of sanctions vis-à-vis Russia.

Taking into consideration that this happened against the government’s recommendationsand at a time when Fillon’s leadership bid was more a velleity than a real-life scenario, the future Republicans elite scored some fairly good points with Russia’s power brokers.

Despite what may appear as a stark contrast to the usual European political stance, Fillon’s appeal to the French population lies elsewhere. He proposes a radical set of reforms, often labelled Thatcherite and ultraliberal by its opponents, and it is this boldness to act that allowed him to beat his Republicans rival, Juppé, whose moderation begun to be perceived as his inability to enact radical reforms.

Fillon’s presidential bid incorporates initiatives to reduce the corporate tax (from 33.33 percent to 25 percent), raise the retirement age (from 62 to 65 years), reduce the number of civil servants by 500,000 (by means of increasing their work time to 39 hours and not replacing pension-bound employees), capping public expenses in order to lower the expenses/GDP ratio to less than 50 percent (currently at 57 percent), and banning adoption for same-sex couples (whilst refraining from the abrogation of same-sex marriage legislation adopted under Hollande).

To build a viable platform ahead of the 2017 presidential elections, Fillon should consolidate Les Républicains around himself. To this end, Fillon will garner the support of many previous rivals, Sarkozy included, for whom, the right-wing candidate suggesteda “specific role.”

As Fillon will secure the backing of many political movements that voiced their support for Juppé and the rather Atlanticist approach to foreign policy that he has advocated, he’ll be forced to make certain concessions, yet it seems highly unlikely that his campaign promise to restore strategic relations with Russia will be discarded once he is in office. All the more so, since his pro-Russian stance might turn out to be an advantage, a sign that he can find common ground with international powers.

The ones to beat

Facing an emergent right-wing candidate, Socialist President François Hollande will find that seeking re-election might turn out to be a Herculean task. With only 14 percent of the French population satisfied with Hollande’s presidency, the current resident of the Élysée Palace has seen his chances waning over time.

Despite moderating the nation’s terrorism hysteria on the back of multiple terrorist attacks in ParisNice and other cities, spearheading a (so far) successful military campaign in Mali, persevering in his faith in joint EU actions vis-à-vis the continent’s numerous crises, and even publishing a book of interviews describing the administrative hardships of being President of France, Hollande remains the Fifth Republic’s most unpopular president. [The Fifth Republic is the fifth and current republican constitution of France, introduced in October 1958 – Editor’s note].

In many ways, Hollande’s foreign policy regarding Moscow has made it quite easy for the next president to pursue a different foreign policy that would engage Moscow. Notwithstanding the Minsk II Agreements, concluded under Franco-German stewardship, which represented the peak of cooperation between Paris and Moscow during the last four years, the Moscow-Paris axis was barely present on the political map of Europe.

Thus, one of the most time-honored partnerships of Europe was bogged down in confrontation over the fate of the Mistral ships (eventually cancelled) and over the Syrian conflict (France ended up calling for a war crimes investigation over Russia’s alleged actions in the Middle Eastern country) against the background of a 15 percent decline in the two countries’ volume of trade between 2011 and 2015.

The Socialist Party will inevitably face a bitter internal power struggle as, apart from Arnaud Montebourg or Benoît Hamon, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has also declared his readiness to follow in the footsteps of Hollande.

Moreover, Hollande would have to deal with Emmanuel Macron, a dynamic investment banker-turned-minister who created his own anti-establishment En Marche! movement. His utterances, decrying the hollowness and impotence of the French political system, will deal a blow more to the current Socialist administration then to Fillon, who is five years out of government office.

Under the current circumstances, Fillon’s main opponent will be Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front. The two share numerous common traits – both are in favor of lifting sanctions against Russia, radically reforming France’s stale political sphere, curbing migration and scaling back (to a varying degree) Hollande’s LGBTQ-related measures.

Le Pen will have a hard time pressuring Fillon, as he has been quite constant in his criticism of France’s political elites, a peculiarity that virtually no one reckoned with, as most analysts expected a Sarkozy-Juppé showdown. As a result, the latest polls presuppose that the two right-wing candidates will joust for the presidency, with Fillon having the upper hand in the second round.

If Fillon becomes President in May 2017, his win in itself will not result in an instantaneous resolution of all thorny issues between Western Europe and Russia. Yet it will set off a European trend to reconsider the EU’s policy vis-à-vis Moscow, much like Republican Donald Trump’s victory made it more palatable internationally to be seeking partnership with Moscow.

Moreover, Germany will hold its federal elections in the second half of 2017, and virtually any strengthening of the Social Democratic Party, Die Linke or the rapidly expanding Alternative for Germany will lead to a softening of positions on Russia. Were this to happen, the other EU nations will follow suit, some very keenly, others grudgingly.

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