OPINION: Macron is on the right side of history and will win the French election

As his opponents scramble to distance themselves from their past Putin-worship, Emmanuel Macron has emerged as the man on the sight side of history and is now virtually guaranteed a victory in the French election, argues John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron is on the right side of history and will win the French election
French president Emmanuel Macron. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

No-one cares much about the French election any more. Not even me. The brutal Russian attack on Ukraine has sucked the oxygen out of the lungs of the campaign in the way that Vladimir Putin’s thermobaric bombs suck the air from the bodies of men, women and children.

No doubt some form of campaign will resume but I believe the result is already a foregone conclusion. President Emmanuel Macron will win.

He has, in effect, won before he has formally entered the race (something he must do by 6pm on Friday). He has won because the campaign is now frozen in his favour. He has won because many voters will rally to the flag and the sitting President in time of mortal crisis.

Most of all he has won because three of his most important challengers have a long and ignoble record of glorifying or apologising for Vladimir Putin.

“The Three Moscowteers”, as I call them, Eric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen (on the far-right) , and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (on the hard, nationalist Left), have been exposed as fake patriots and defective thinkers.

Like the British politicians who defended Hitler until September 1939, they find themselves trapped on the wrong side of history. All three mock and detest the European Union (which is now going through its finest hour). All three oppose French membership of Nato (whose purpose has never been more clear).

All three have aligned themselves in the past with Vladimir Putin against Washington, against Brussels and even against their own country. Zemmour has even said that he dreams of a “French Putin” and that France should break its other alliances and throw in its lot with the “more reliable” Moscow.

In the last four days, Zemmour has lost two and a half points in the daily IFOP tracking poll and has fallen to 14 percent first round support. Macron has climbed by two points to 28 percent, his highest score for a year. Marine Le Pen seems for now to have avoided punishment for her Putin connections and is emerging (on 17 percent) as the favourite to reach the second round with Macron.

The President will make his first, long statement to the French people on the Ukraine war in a TV address at 8pm on Wednesday. The Elysée says that he will NOT take the opportunity to say formally that he is a candidate in an election that he now looks certain to win.

If he does not do so on Wednesday then, I expect, he will on Thursday.

My bold – actually not so bold – prediction of a nailed-on Macron victory may come as a surprise to some in the British media. Some British pundits took heart from the failure of Emmanuel Macron’s peace mission to Putin last month. They believed that Macron had been “humiliated” and would therefore lose next month’s presidential election.

That’s not the way it is seen in France. A majority of French people, according to opinion polls, gave Macron credit for attempting to avoid a war until the last moment.

Yes, Macron was naïve. Yes, his public statements were sometimes misleadingly optimistic. He has believed for years that he could persuade Putin that Russia is great European country and that its destiny and future prosperity lie in a closer relationship with the European Union.

Many people, inside and outside France, warned Macron that he was gravely mistaken. Vladimir Putin, they said, detests the liberal economic and political values on which the EU was founded. He believes only in the resurrection of Russia as a global power and the recreation of an allegedly Christian Russian Empire in which such western evils as women’s equality or gay rights are suppressed (hence Eric Zemmour’s attraction to him).

Nonetheless, Macron probably did more good than harm in his failed peace mission to Moscow. No one can rationally claim that the West did not give Putin every opportunity – several “off-ramps” as the diplomatic jargon now has it – to avoid invading the 21st century with a 20th century war.

There has also been some criticism of Macron’s two telephone conversations with Putin, one of them brief, the other 90 minutes long, since the war began a week ago. On both occasions, Macron was asked to make the calls by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky

Macron speaks to Zelensky several times a day. So do other western leaders. The Ukrainian president seems to regard Macron as the only one who can still make calls to Putin.

On the last occasion, on Monday, Zelensky asked Macron to ask Putin to spare civilian targets. The Russian leader agreed and his army carried on regardless, targeting (accidentally or otherwise) hospitals and schools in recent days. A pointless call then? Maybe.

The Elysée view is that the conversation helped, once again, to illustrate the difference between what Putin says and what he does. At some point, officials say Putin will have to talk seriously to the West. Better to keep the channel open.

In another respect, the last week has shown Macron to be a forward-thinker. For years he has been banging on about the need for the European Union to develop a political and strategic brain to go with its economic muscle. The EU, he said, should start to think and act like a political power – une puissance – not just the world’s biggest open-borders trading market.

In the last seven days, the EU has done just that.

It has imposed much tougher sanctions on Russia than many thought possible. It has offered €450 million to Kyiv to buy weapons (breaking an EU taboo). It has agreed EU-wide bans on Russian civil aircraft and on propaganda arms like Russia Today.

The EU, which always leaps forward in times of crisis, has caught up with Macron’s ambitions for it. In that respect at least, it looks as though the French president has been on the right side of history.

Member comments

  1. A good article John and I agree with just about everything you say. It will be interesting to see how Macron’s second term proceeds given that he is likely to enter it with a much enhanced reputation. But you commit two common errors among political commentators when talking about polling data: firstly, to assume that changes in the data are ‘real’ changes in the population as a whole when they are in fact within the margin of error for a sample and, secondly, commit the ‘post hoc propter hoc’ fallacy by assuming that these changes are the result of recent events.

  2. No arguments there, John. Potin has made Macron is a shoo-in at this point. But too bad we never had a real debate on the real issues confronting France this time.

  3. John, overall I agree with just about everything you say here. Macron may well go into his second term with a smaller majority in the second round than last time but he will have rather more momentum and greater standing than last time. Quite simply he dwarfs the other candidates in terms of electability, although the French will continue to complain about him and the established political pundits, whether from the Right, Left or, apparently in some cases, Mars, will still not forgive him for taking their cosy little games away from them back in 2017. The Guardian in the UK will continue to commission comment on French politics from people who appear to have no idea at all what’s going on outside the peripherique. Or indeed within it. It will be interesting to see just how he goes about his second term.

    As a someone who spent nearly 40 years working on surveys and polls however, I have a complaint: you commit two of the most common errors of political pundits, firstly, in assuming that small changes in poll standings, usually within the margin or error (which can be around +/- 4%), mean that there have been similar changes in the electorate, they do not. Secondly, you then commit the ‘post hoc, propter hoc’ fallacy in assuming that these have been caused by events occuring recently before them, when they might be entirely unrelated or just sampling error.

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OPINION: Putin is advancing rapidly – in his invasion of French-speaking west Africa

Events in Mali and more recently Burkina Faso have proved humiliating for the French government - and while many people won't be shedding any tears for the former colonisers, the advance of Russian militias should concern us all, says John Lichfield.

OPINION: Putin is advancing rapidly - in his invasion of French-speaking west Africa

Russia may be retreating in Ukraine but it is advancing rapidly on another front 7,000 kilometres away in what used to be French west Africa.

Vladimir Putin’s great African offensive – using bribery, lies, mercenaries and some genuine development aid – scored a new victory in recent days in Burkina Faso, one of the ten poorest countries in the world.

The second coup d’état in Ouagadougou in eight months brought to power a 30-something army captain who lauded Moscow and berated the “colonial” iniquities of France.

The immediate loser from Russia’s African campaign is what used to be called “Françafrique” – the once-deep political and economic involvement of France in its former African colonies. That decline is not new and has many causes. It is probably inevitable and might eventually be healthy, for both Africa and France.

If the Kremlin wasn’t involved…

The great losers from Russia’s stealthy invasion of west and central Africa will be the Burkinabés and other Africans. Whatever Vladimir Putin’s motives in building an African empire, it is certainly not to help Africans achieve greater control over their own lives, resources and governments.

The spearhead of Putin’s Africa policy is the Wagner mercenary army, run on the Kremlin’s behalf by a billionaire oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagner army has already been implicated in brutal incidents and massacres in several African countries.

Who popped up this week to praise Burkina Faso’s new young strongman? Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In a bizarre statement, more like that of a government than a billionaire businessman, Prigozhin said that he “saluted and supported” Captain Ibrahim Traoré, a man who acted in the name of “liberty and justice”.

In return, Captain Traoré lambasted France and said that Burkina Faso was ready to seek “other partners ready to help in the fight against terrorism”. The next day the French embassy was attacked and vandalised.

The two statements amounted to a brazen admission that the  coup was planned in Moscow. They also reflect a confidence that many west and central Africans now see Russia as their liberator from “imperialist” France.

Burkina Faso has been bombarded in recent months by social media propaganda accusing the deposed Colonel Damiba of being a French stooge. Similar material has appeared in the French language Russia Today TV channel and Sputnik news agency, which have a growing following in all Francophone central and west Africa countries.

Meanwhile, the various jihadist, radical Islamist forces operating in the Sahel and west and central Africa have been gaining ground (including one third of the territory of Burkina Faso). Russia is not in alliance with the Islamists but it does exploit their success for its own gain.

Trust by local people in the French forces deployed (with mixed effect) to fight the jihadis has been constantly undermined by Russian propaganda. The Islamist insurgence is, the propaganda says, just a pretext for “French colonial” interference. Otherwise, the jihadis would have been defeated long ago.

Mali, next door to Burkina Faso, also suffered a double coup by officers hostile to France in 2020 – leading Emmanuel Macron to end the nine years old French anti-Islamist military deployment in the country. Wagner Russian “mercenaries” are now heavily active in the country (though officially just “instructors”).

Similar anti-French feeling is being stirred up in Niger. In June, President Emmanuel Macron suspended all financial and military aid to Centrafrique (the Central Africa Republic) after accusing its government of being “the hostage of the paramilitary Russian Wagner group”.

France fears similar advances in Senegal and Ivory Coast.

This lightning advance of Russian influence in Africa explains in part Macron’s eloquent and angry speech to the UN last month in which he accused (by implication) African countries of betraying their own long-term interests by refusing to condemn the “new colonialism” of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Anti-French feeling in Africa is not entirely a Russia invention. Successive Presidents since Jacques Chirac have tried to unwind the unhealthy and corrupt relationship which existed until the 1990s between Paris and African political elites. Resentment of France as the former colonial power remains – sometimes justified, sometimes fanciful.

In a sense, France has the worst of both worlds. It paying for its past sins rather than benefiting from its present, sometimes clumsy, efforts to fight Islamist terrorism, reduce corruption and foster democracy. Russian power has spread partly because France can no longer call those shots in Africa which Moscow accuses Paris of calling.

Emmanuel Macron has gone even further than his predecessors in trying to create a new relationship with “Françafrique.”  He invited students, artists and successful entrepreneurs, as well as the usual politicians, to the annual France-Africa summit in Montpellier this year.

Macron has said that it is up to African countries whether they want to carry on with the so-called “African franc”, a shared currency (or actually two regional currencies), tied to the Euro and guaranteed by Paris. The “CFA” is the object of many anti-French fantasies in Africa but provides a stability which has helped all its member countries grow faster than most other African nations.

Into this difficult ground, Russia has advanced with much greater skill than it has shown in its brutal, failed attack on Ukraine. Many Africans have been persuaded that Moscow is their ally against a greedy, hypocritical West.

China has advanced with even more subtlety in other parts of Africa. In both cases, African countries may learn to their cost that they have exchanged one form of colonialism for another – even greedier and more corrupt.