Vladimir Putin during a religious ceremony, 2016 (Source: Kremlin.ru)

Will the pro-Russian European right ever change its view on Putin?

Olivier Bault

Having among my “friends” on social media many French people, who are closer to Zemmour and Le Pen than to Macron, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, I was shocked at how many among them believe and disseminate Russian propaganda in their posts. Some were not even able to hide their enthusiasm and joy with news of “Holy Russia’s” strong blow in response – as they claim – to the expansion of the USA and NATO to the East.

For those of my countrymen, there is no doubt that the Ukrainian Euromaidan at the turn of 2013 and 2014 was inspired and financed by the United States and that a coup took place, after which the democratically elected president was replaced with a neo-Nazi junta, as Kremlin propagandists have been arguing for years.

The false figure of 14,000 civilian casualties in the Donbass is also reproduced. These civilians were allegedly killed in the constant shelling of the Russian-speaking republics by the Ukrainian army. The additional false narrative of an impending genocide, which allegedly forced Russia to intervene, is also reproduced. The wars started by the USA and NATO for the last 30 years are recalled, and above all the bombing of Serbia in 1999 by NATO planes in order to detach Kosovo from that country under the pretext of alleged Serb crimes against the Albanians (which later turned out to be just as contrived as the alleged genocide at the hands of Ukrainians in the Donbas) and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US army and units of allied countries (including Poland) under the false pretext of the presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and relations between the Saddam Hussein regime and Al-Qaeda, which in fact had no merit. Interestingly, the authors of the statements and posts do not see a contradiction in the fact that this time they are on the side of the aggressor, and at the same time they continue to vehemently condemn the unlawful and destructive attacks on Serbia and Iraq.

On your plate”

These allegations against the US and NATO were often made by Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. In Poland, they are perceived as pro-Russian and pro-Putin politicians, among others because of France’s postulate to leave NATO’s military structures and because of its open opposition to the accession of Ukraine and other countries of the former USSR to the North Atlantic Alliance.

Even on the Sunday before the Russian attack, Zemmour said on TV that he did not believe in the Russian invasion. “Although I may be wrong”, he added, highlighting that. “there is a lot of propaganda” from Russia and the United States. His way of keeping peace in the region? Demand that Russia obey Ukraine’s borders, in return for which the West would promise that Ukraine will never join NATO. In the past, Zemmour claimed, inter alia, in an interview for the weekly “Do Rzeczy” that NATO lost its raison d’être with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that it wants France to stay there precisely in order to block Ukraine’s accession to it.

After the attack on February 24th, Zemmour expressed admiration for the patriotism and courage of the Ukrainians and President Zelensky, and stated that “Russia is the only aggressor here. There is a difference between identifying an aggressor and defining responsibility. Historians will ultimately judge this, but this is not the time. The aggressor is Vladimir Putin”. This does not change the fact that, according to Zemmour, Paris should pursue a policy independent of Washington and Moscow and propose a new treaty between Russians, Europeans, and Americans to ensure that NATO does not expand further. He repeated this demand at the election rally on February 27th, that is, during the third day of the Russian invasion. “What would the Americans say” – notes Zemmour – “if the Russians installed missiles in Mexico or Cuba?”. Zemmour is also against imposing sanctions on Russia. He believes that they will harm the French more than the Russians. “At the moment we come out of the sanitary crisis, the price of liquified petroleum gas will rise sharply, the price of gasoline will rise, and the price of grains will soar” – he argued on February 27th. “On your plate, in your company, at the gas station, the consequences can be serious and very specific. The national interest is to protect France and the French!”.

Like Zemmour, Marine Le Pen is not enthusiastic about the sanctions taken against Russia and the Putin regime: “Depending on the nature of the sanctions applied, there may be terrible consequences for the purchasing power of the French, especially in the areas of energy and raw materials” – she said on February 25th. “We must not ignore this. The French are extremely vulnerable today due to the decline in purchasing power and the rise in energy prices. If we do not take this situation into account, prices will either double or rise even higher”.

Le Pen has always opposed the possibility of NATO’s expansion to Ukraine and in the past even argued that Crimea will never return to Ukraine and the Russian annexation of the peninsula will have to be recognized someday.

After February 24th, she unequivocally condemned the Russian aggression and expressed her appreciation for the resistance of the Ukrainians, even admitting that because of what happened, she perceives the Russian president differently today. “Vladimir Putin from five years ago is not exactly the same Vladimir Putin of today” – said Marine Le Pen, responding to a journalist’s complaint about her trip to Moscow several years ago at the invitation of the Kremlin governor. She assured that today she would not accept such an invitation.

An Ifop poll released on March 4th shows that, contrary to the impression made by active supporters of Putin’s Russia on social media and in French right-wing alternative media on the Internet, the vast majority of Le Pen and Zemmour voters are on the Ukrainian side. 72% of those who intend to vote in the first round of the presidential election on Le Pen, support Ukrainians in this conflict, and only 3% support Putin’s Russia. For Zemmour voters, the ratio is 58% to 8%, and for the total number of voters of all candidates the ratio is 74% to 3% (the rest do not support either Ukraine or Russia).

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This article was published in March 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.