No EU head of state has yet dared to break the EU’s consensus on Russian sanctions. Will François Fillon be the first?
François Fillon has just won the French conservative primaries by a huge margin. Now, he will be trying to capitalise on the momentum he has gained from his win to deliver the result he wants in the upcoming presidential election. And with his foreign policy option, this presidential vote will pose a formidable challenge to Europe’s unity. Fillon’s views on Russia, in particular, fly in the face of the current European consensus. But neither foreign policy nor Europe are at the centre of the campaign, and domestic issues are much more likely to prevail when French voters make their choice in the spring of next year.
Fillon, a former prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, made his position on Russia clear long before the primary campaign even began, and he has stuck to it ever since. He believes French policy has been too aligned with the US, whether on Ukraine or the Middle East – in spite of the countries' significant differences in opinion on these issues. And that, with ISIS and Islamism being the top security priorities for France following the terror attacks since January 2015, an alliance with Vladimir Putin's Russia is badly needed, even at the price of conflating ISIS and other terrorist groups with any other forces fighting against the Assad government.
Worryingly, he calls not only for the ‘re-establishment’ of a political dialogue with Russia – a dialogue that was actually never interrupted – but also for the EU to lift all sanctions against Russia, including those adopted as a consequence of the forceful and unlawful Russian annexation of Crimea.
The French public’s opinion on the Russia question differs from Fillon’s. The majority have no confidence in Vladimir Putin and support maintaining economic sanctions against Russia on the Ukraine issue. Fillon’s critics add that, rather ironically, his desired relationship with Russia mirrors the alleged alignment with the US that he has attacked so fervently.
If both Fillon and the Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen, reach the second round of the presidential election, a rapprochement with Putin’s Russia will become the order of the day for French foreign policy. At the moment it seems that a majority of presidential candidates will run on a pro-Russia or at least anti-sanctions platform.
Fillon’s pro-Russia views are long held, and he himself often refers to his personal ties to Putin when they were both prime ministers. But pro-Russia sentiment has become much more widespread on the French political right in general. If Alain Juppé, who was defeated yesterday, was much more cautious, former President Nicolas Sarkozy ran on an anti-sanctions platform too, despite having campaigned against Putin when he was elected in 2007. And the support base for this rapprochement policy includes activists advocating the defence of Christian minorities in the Middle East, traditional anti-Americans advocates and economic lobbies opposed to sanctions.
What these campaigns announce is a clear break with the current approach. It would not only be a change of posture vis-à-vis Russia. It would also directly challenge the existing consensus within the EU on how to deal with Russia. And such a break would be a direct blow to Germany’s efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis, and its balancing act between those in Europe (and the US) holding the line on sanctions, and those more favourable to engagement with Moscow. France has been a key ally in Angela Merkel’s endeavours to walk this tight-rope. But that might be about to change. And the fact that Fillon mentions the option to work also with Iran in Syria, so as to re-balance France’s current alliance with Sunni Gulf powers, will hardly be well received in the US, even under a Trump administration.
For sure, during the campaign, Fillon has consistently said that he wants to make Europe one of his priorities, representing a stark contrast with the lack of discussion on this topic during the primaries. But his Eurosceptic views — he flaunts his no vote on the Maastricht Treaty as a badge of honour — may signal a tense future with EU partners. An advocate of a more sovereigntist Union, based on bilateral or intergovernmental cooperations, he has, for instance, made clear that he wouldn’t feel constrained by public deficit targets in his economic policy and would support less power for the European Commission.
An alliance with Russian forces – not to mention Syrian ones – would quickly see France run into quite a few difficulties. For one, Russian and Assad forces actually target non-ISIS fighters most prominently, as is demonstrated by the current siege on Aleppo — something that runs contrary to the aims of the US-led coalition, and more specifically French interest for targeting Raqqa. And also, direct and repeated violations of international humanitarian law would likely become an issue for a country like France, which is a strong supporter of humanitarian principles and a party to the International Criminal Court. But the more strategic problem would have to do with the consequences for the Europeanisation of France’s foreign policy on Russia.
Critics of the status quo argue that France has made itself less of a player on the global stage by supporting EU consensus. But the idea that France can do without its European partners should be taken with caution. Even if Fillon (or Le Pen, for that matter) were to make the fight against ISIS the top priority, they should remember that Paris, which is also fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda at home, in Libya or in the Sahel, was forced to call for Europe's military solidarity in November last year, at the risk of being overstretched.
A u-turn in France’s Russia policy could fracture the current EU consensus, and wouldn’t bode well for EU partners’ desire to continue supporting the French. More broadly, Fillon’s desire to strengthen Europe’s defence will never receive popular support at EU level with the kind of alliance strategy and threat assessment he has put forward.
The moment of truth could come quickly for France. The EU decision to again renew its sanctions against Russia is scheduled for next June, only a few weeks after the new French president takes office. EU rules dictate that one country alone can obstruct the consensus. No EU partner – however wary of the rationale for sanctions – has dared to make the first move in this direction so far. If France is the first, the consequences for Europe’s unity, and French national security, may well be tremendous.