of

Macron vs. Le Pen: Scenarios for NATO’s Eastern Flank

April 21, 2022
9 min read
Photo credit: franckpoupart / Shutterstock.com
The second round of the French elections is less than a week away, and foreign policy has become a major campaign topic.

Marine Le Pen’s foreign policy agenda has again illustrated that the election’s outcome will have a critical impact on how the European Union and NATO react to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and, more broadly, on transatlantic relations and security cooperation. Next Sunday, French voters will choose between two trajectories in foreign and security policy: Emmanuel Macron’s explicitly European program and Le Pen’s nationalist program. France’s choice will influence the outcome of the war in Ukraine and the future of the new European security order. Here is how Macron and Le Pen have previously positioned themselves on these issues and the short-term implications of their respective victories.

Emmanuel Macron: A Second Term for European Sovereignty—with All Its Pros and Cons

Macron’s track record, positions, and program on NATO’s Eastern flank and Russia’s war on Ukraine

Over the last five years, Emmanuel Macron has reiterated the need for European strategic autonomynow labeled sovereignty—and insisted that EU member states need to do more in European defense. In addition to his 2019 warning that NATO might suffer from “brain death,” Macron’s overall approach to European security and defense puts him in a difficult position vis-à-vis the Eastern European allies. Macron was often accused of lacking sensitivity toward Eastern European threat perceptions, and despite his constant refrain that EU defense must be compatible with NATO, his focus on the EU caused at least irritation in Warsaw and Bucharest.

Macron’s track record on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine also sparked criticism: since 2018, he had engaged with Russia through a bilateral dialogue and was the only NATO leader able to negotiate with President Vladimir Putin right after Russia’s invasion on Ukraine. While this dialogue was harshly criticized for being too soft toward Russia, France—which is currently holding the rotating command of NATO’s Very High Readiness Task Force—has reacted quickly and announced that it will significantly step up its military deployments to Romania. This stronger commitment to NATO’s eastern flank is very much in line with a recent trend: though France is not perceived as the most engaged NATO ally, it has notably increased its commitment to NATO since 2016, and Macron continued this approach. In reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he pledged to deploy 500 soldiers to Romania and 200 soldiers to the Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia.

France has also strengthened its ties in defense cooperation with the Baltic countries through their participation in the Takuba Task Force in the Sahel. The willingness of Baltic and Scandinavian countries to militarily engage in the Sahel for European security interests and a major security priority for France was seen as an important advancement in jointly addressing European security threats. Macron understood a similar commitment from France would be expected at Europe’s eastern flank.

Macron’s program does not offer detailed information on his approach toward NATO’s eastern flank. Yet, as Macron has served the longest time among the leaders of big EU member states, he will likely take the lead on behalf of Europeans in the crisis. After touting NATO’s importance over recent weeks, he may slightly adapt his narrative on EU defense, particularly to address concerns of the Eastern European states, and place a stronger emphasis on the assets of EU defense cooperation for NATO.

Why Macron’s Re-election Matters for European Security

France can be a key player in the war in Ukraine. If it leverages its diplomatic, political, and military assets, France will have an important impact on European security and Europe’s role in the world.

Opportunities:

NATO: Currently NATO guarantees security for Europe in the face of an aggressive and revisionist Russia. This is evidenced by Sweden and Finland’s plans to join the alliance. Macron has underlined that NATO remains crucial to European security. At the NATO Summit in June, Eastern European countries will continue to push for further strengthening the eastern flank. If Macron is re-elected, his current approach toward Russia and NATO’s eastern flank is expected to continue. France will contribute to strengthening NATO’s posture and readiness.

Sanctions and embargo: Sanctions will not stop the war, but they will hinder the Russian war machine and signal to Putin that his actions will not go unpunished. In the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, as part of France’s rotating presidency of the EU Council, Macron gathered European leaders in Versailles and led a strong response to the invasion. Overall, Macron is in favor of further sanctions on Russia. He was not at the forefront of Europeans publicly calling for an energy embargo, likely because the perspective of soaring energy prices would not have been well received by the French electorate. However, on Tuesday France’s minister for economic affairs called for an embargo on Russian oil.

Arms deliveries: In contrast to Washington and London, Paris has been cautious in providing information on arms supply to Ukraine; last week, the French minister of defense announced that France had already provided arms worth more than €100 million to Ukraine and that more was planned. Macron would probably not use the issue of arms supply for French public diplomacy efforts and openly communicate the details, but would nevertheless prove himself a reliable ally to Ukraine in this respect.

Challenges:

Dialogue and ceasefire: The two major challenges of Macron’s policy toward Russia and Eastern Europe are his emphasis on the importance of negotiations with Russia, which is poorly received in Eastern Europe, and his potential role in brokering a ceasefire in his capacity as one of Europe’s most influential and longest-serving leaders. Ukraine’s neighbors echo its demands that the West should not force Ukraine to make concessions and that only they should decide when to negotiate with their aggressor. Macron might view this differently. France played a leading role in the Normandy Format and in the Minsk agreements, which were difficult for Ukraine to agree on. Macron may be able to secure a seat for France at the negotiation table if it comes to it, but it is unclear to what extent he would allow the Ukrainians to set the agenda.

Bilateral relations: The war in Ukraine transcends divides even between Poland’s government and opposition, and so bilateral relations such as those between Macron and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki are of secondary importance. The spat between them was unfortunate, but the common challenge is Russia. If Macron is re-elected, there is a lot of room for new openings with Eastern European partners in security and defense cooperation.

Marine Le Pen: Good Friends with Central European Countries—and Russia

Le Pen’s track record, positions, and program on NATO’s eastern flank and Russia’s war on Ukraine

Managing France’s relations with countries on NATO’s eastern flank is a delicate balancing act for Marine Le Pen. She must maneuver between building strong political relations and a common agenda for Europe with like-minded forces, including Poland’s PiS party and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and preventing her close links to Vladimir Putin and narrative on French national sovereignty from sparking existential fears in Eastern Europe. So far, Le Pen has managed this surprisingly well. She has engaged with PiS and hence managed to frame herself as an international figure who creates meaningful alliances. In the summer of 2021, Le Pen and leaders of 15 other European parties, among them Orbán and PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, signed a declaration “on the future of Europe,” calling for limiting the EU’s competences and for strengthening nation states as main actors in Europe. She has established herself as a key player among European extreme-right forces and European leaders—without even holding a government position.

Le Pen’s ambivalent relations with Russia could have harmed her campaign, but she managed to avoid this. Even when her campaign flyers, which feature a photo of her shaking Putin’s hand a few years ago, were still distributed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she argued that the photo was taken at a time when dialogue with Russia was still possible and necessary. With the cost of living at the heart of her program, her arguments against further sanctions to avoid increasing energy and food prices were consistent with the rest of her message. But the National Rally party is perfectly aware how sensitive this topic is, as demonstrated by the aggressive removal of a person holding up the photo at Le Pen’s press conference last week. The fact that the National Rally still has ongoing loans from a Russian bank has allowed her adversaries to attack her and this topic would likely be back on the table in the case of her election.

However, the presentation of her foreign policy priorities last Wednesday underlined that a Le Pen presidency would mean an important strategic readjustment for France. Regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine, she proposes that “once the war of Russia and Ukraine is over and has been settled by a peace treaty, NATO should work on strategic rapprochement with Russia.” Furthermore, Le Pen calls for France leaving NATO’s Integrated Command, although she specifies that she would not “suspend the application of Article 5.” Nevertheless, she stresses that she does not have a transatlantic reflex, and that cooperation with the United States should only be pursued if it served French interests.

Why Le Pen’s Election Would Endanger European Security

Le Pen’s victory would deeply shake the pro-Ukraine coalition. Some have gone so far as to call it “a win for Putin” and “Moscow in Paris.” While that may be an overreaction, it shows the degree of alarm in Europe’s east. 

Challenges:

Leaving NATO’s Integrated Command: France is a nuclear world power, it has the second strongest military in Europe, and its position and engagement in the biggest war on the European continent since World War II matters. Accordingly, France’s capabilities factor into NATO’s capability in living up to its role as guarantor of European security. Particularly in the current security context, NATO’s eastern flank needs to be strengthened and France leaving the Integrated Command would send the opposite signal to the Moscow. Moreover, Eastern Europeans fear that if France pulls out of NATO’s Integrated Command, the United States would be less willing to shoulder the financial burden of additional troop deployment to the eastern flank.

Acting now: Le Pen’s foreign policy statements on the war in Ukraine refer to a post-war period. But this war will not end quickly. Russia has resorted to Soviet-style tactics, which are slow and brutal. Putin wants to destroy Ukraine as a country and Ukrainians as a people. If Le Pen is passive and does nothing to help Ukraine win (for example, sanctions, weapons, or intelligence sharing), this will weaken Ukraine’s position.

Strategic rapprochement with NATO: The West engaged Russia in a strategic rapprochement before and that did not stop its leader from seeking dominance over independent neighboring countries. There are other territories around Russia that Putin qualifies as consequences of the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transnistria. Since the start of the war, the security situation in those regions has significantly worsened.

Le Pen’s relation with illiberal democratic leaders: The PiS party’s cooperation with Le Pen is a very contested issue in Poland. Prime Minister Morawiecki was harshly criticized for meeting with her. PiS may align on her policy toward the EU, but their views on Russia are worlds apart. Does PiS want to influence her policies toward the war in Ukraine in case she wins the election? The evolution of this relationship is something to watch out for.