Macron struggles to play Russia’s card in close race against Le Pen – POLITICO

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PARIS — Marine Le Pen has more than one Russian skeleton in her closet — from her past admiration for President Vladimir Putin to party loans from a Russian bank — so the upcoming French presidential election should be headlined by mounting reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine be dominated, be a walkthrough for Emmanuel Macron.

And yet it is not. The leader of the far-right National Rally Party is making the race uncomfortably close for the liberal president ahead of a first ballot on Sunday.

In fact, the French president is struggling to defend his own track record against Russia. On Wednesday, Macron responded vigorously to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s criticism that he was talking to Putin and therefore “negotiating with criminals”.

“These words are both unfounded and scandalous, but they don’t surprise me,” Macron said called on the French TV channel TF1. “They are interfering in the presidential campaign. The Polish Prime Minister belongs to an extreme right-wing party and supports Marine Le Pen.”

Morawiecki was referring to Macron’s regular calls to Putin as part of an ongoing, albeit unsuccessful, diplomatic effort to stop the war. On Wednesday, Macron again defended his decision to keep the line to Moscow open and tried to redirect criticism towards Le Pen.

“I fully stand by my decision to talk to Russia to avoid war… And I was never an accomplice [of Putin]unlike others,” he said, heavily alluding to Le Pen’s past cozy ties with Moscow.

Likewise when visiting Brittany on TuesdayMacron attempted to shine a spotlight on his rival’s past ties with Russia, telling reporters he was neither the one who was “pleased” with Putin nor “was funded by Russia.”

Water off a duck’s back

Le Pen and Russia go way back. Your National Rally Party is still paying off a €9 million loan from a Russian bank in 2014 and has often sided with Moscow – whether on the annexation of Crimea or the fate of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Last month, Le Pen’s campaign team was reportedly forced to flee a million campaign papers because they showed a picture of her shaking hands with Putin in 2017.

Yet these have not unduly alarmed Le Pen’s presidential bid, and it has stubbornly climbed in the polls since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to POLITICO polls, Le Pen will win 22 percent of the vote in the first round after narrowing the gap to leader Macron to 27 percent. Crucially, the poll for the expected April 24 runoff shows Le Pen significantly narrowing the gap with the incumbent.

In part, this has to do with Le Pen’s adroit approach to the war in Ukraine. The far-right leader quickly turned against Putin early in the war, admitting on TV that the conflict “changed” her opinion of the Russian president, and she has consistently condemned the invasion ever since.

At times she has even tried to outdo Macron in her response to the crisis by demanding the expulsion of the Russian ambassador on Wednesday, when France decided to sack several dozen Russian diplomats over reports of atrocities against civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.

Her right-wing rival Eric Zemmour has also had to take a lot of criticism in view of the stricter media monitoring. Also, an admirer of Putin, Zemmour, stumbled in the early days of the war and demanded that Ukrainian refugees should be welcomed in Poland, not France.

“The media trial of Putin’s former friends did us more harm than Le Pen,” a top Zemmour ally recently admitted, adding; “Our constituents follow politics closely, while many Le Pen voters have turned off mainstream politics, they don’t follow [international news].”

Instead, Le Pen’s election campaign remains focused on the rising cost of living for the French, which is being pushed up by inflation and the impact of sanctions on Russia on the European economy. The topic dominates the public debate in the run-up to the election.

On Tuesday, Le Pen tried to portray herself as the protector of French families against EU sanctions against Russia.

“The solution to reduce gas and petrol imports [from Russia]this will be a tragedy for French families,” she said French radio RTL. “I’m sorry to tell you that defending the purchasing power of French families is my priority,” she said.

Macron instead appears to be catching up in the campaign, arguing his economic measures also protect France’s purchasing power and battling revelations that his government has spent millions of euros on costly consultancy fees. His government is also actively promoting further energy sanctions against Russia.

If, as the polls show, Macron and Le Pen face off in the second round, Le Pen may have to convince voters beyond her political base that her Russian connections are not an obstacle to French leadership.

Macron has so far refrained from directly naming Le Pen in reference to her ties with Russia. In the second round, the gloves are more likely to come loose. Macron struggles to play Russia's card in close race against Le Pen - POLITICO

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