Expert Commentary

EU, Washington, Moscow Closely Watching French Election

Charles Kupchan
Former Senior Director for European Affairs, National Security Council

As the French presidential election gets underway, the candidates positions toward the EU, Washington, and Moscow vary significantly. Depending on who comes out on top, relations with these different power centers could change. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with Charles Kupchan, former special assistant to the president and senior director for European Affairs on the NSC in the Obama administration, about the upcoming election and its impact on international relations and defense.

The Cipher Brief: Which candidate in the upcoming French presidential election is or should Washington be supporting?

Charles Kupchan: Let me caveat this by saying the Trump Administration’s views and “Washington’s” views may not necessarily be the same, inasmuch as the Trump Administration at times departs from the views of the foreign policy establishment. I would say that the majority position among foreign policy experts and Europe watchers is that the main hope in the election is that Marine Le Pen does not emerge as the next French president because she represents a populist, anti-immigrant leader, who could try to guide France out of the European Union, which, in combination with Brexit, could potentially jeopardize the future of the project of European integration. And that outcome would be quite antithetical to U.S. interests.

TCB: There is speculation, which you alluded to, that Trump’s views may diverge from those of the foreign policy apparatus in the U.S. and he might actually get along with Marine Le Pen precisely because she does hold those populist and anti-immigration ideas that are similar to his. Do you agree with that? Second, how likely is a French exit from the European Union, if Marine Le Pen were to win?

CK: The overall foreign policy orientation, as well as the specific policies of the Trump Administration are still a work in progress, so I would be reluctant to try to decipher Trump’s views of Le Pen and of the European project. He started off by saying that NATO was obsolete, and he has since become a strong supporter of NATO. He started off welcoming the British vote to exit the European Union and has said some less than kind things about the European Union, but it may well be that Trump is gravitating to a more conventional position as the influence of Presidential Advisor Steve Bannon decreases, and the influence of people like National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Vice President Mike Pence increases. And in general, the foreign policy establishment is very Atlanticist and very pro-European. So my sense is that Trump’s views are in the process of evolving, and I would not want to second guess him at this point.

As far as what might happen if Le Pen wins, I would say that yes, an exit from the Eurozone, and potentially from the EU as a whole, is a real possibility, because she has long been a critic of the euro and the European Union. Given the populism that is surging in many different European countries, I could imagine a referendum held in France that endorses “Frexit,” but it is at this point way too early to speculate.

TCB: At a Wilson Center event a couple of weeks ago called “France in an Era of Transatlantic Uncertainty,” you mentioned that the U.S. and France over the past eight years under the Obama Administration had very close military ties. What are some of the most important missions in this realm that the U.S. and France are working on together? Could any of those change significantly with the various candidates for the presidency – with a Marine Le Pen president, a Jean-Luc Mélenchon president, Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, etc.?

CK: The main missions that the U.S. and France have been cooperating on tend to be those focused on counterterrorism. Some of that is quiet intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation, and some of it involves military action. In Iraq and in Syria, the French have been quite active and very steady partners of the United States in the counter-ISIL mission. France and the United States have also been working closely together in Africa, where the French have taken the lead in various counterterrorism operations, including in Mali.

In general, I don’t expect there to be a serious degradation of that cooperation because the projection of French power abroad is still very much embedded in French political culture. President Francois Hollande, even though quite weak at home, was quite activist abroad. Activism was one of his bright spots when it comes to popular support.

The biggest likelihood for some change would be if Le Pen did win, because she represents a kind of neo-isolationist strain in which she might counsel that France step away from engagement in counterterrorist activities as a way of somehow shielding itself from attacks from abroad. The other possibility for change would be a victory by Mélenchon, the left-wing candidate, who may take a position of easing off defense spending and French activism.

In general, French support for a continued robust role overseas remains strong. It is in some ways a legacy of France’s long run of imperialism as well as Gaullism, which tapped into this deeper strain of French ambition beyond its borders.

TCB: Is there credible concern that Russia is interfering in these elections on behalf of Le Pen or any other candidate? Should there be concern if a candidate who has voiced his or her desire to ease tensions with Russia – like Le Pen or Fillon – gets elected?

CK: There’s no question that the Russians are attempting to influence the election inasmuch as they are using media outlets and their presence in French media to try to favor certain candidates against others. Whether they are engaged in covert activities, such as hacking or other kinds of cyber tools, we don’t know. We do know that the National Front has received some Russian financial support, so there are linkages there. We know that Le Pen, not too long ago, went to Russia to see Putin, so she is a candidate that represents a different strain in French political culture and in other countries – she’s attempting to tap into the strain of the strong leader that Putin represents.

Were she to be elected, I think it would be a success for the Russians, because the Russians are interested in seeing a weakening of the West and a fragmentation of the European Union, and she could well pursue that agenda.

In general, it is difficult for major western democracies to pivot in their relations with Russia. It is harder than they think, as the Trump Administration is finding out. And that’s because when you actually do your homework and look at what Russia is doing in Ukraine and in Syria, and look at how Russia is attempting to influence democratic elections in the West, it’s not a pretty story. In that respect, I think some leaders, such as Le Pen and Trump, will find it harder than they think to right relations with Russia.

That being said, there remains strong pressure in many European countries – including France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Czech Republic, and others – for a better political and economic relationship with Russia. As a consequence, if Le Pen were to win and to happen to push the relationship in that direction, I do expect it would be difficult to maintain the Atlantic solidarity in standing up to Russia that we witnessed over the last three years.

The Author is Charles Kupchan

Charles Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and a professor of international affairs in the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government at Georgetown University. From 2014 to 2017, Kupchan served as special assistant to the president and senior director for European Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) in the Obama administration. He was also director for European Affairs on the NSC during the first Clinton... Read More

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