A damaged and torn official campaign poster of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement national (RN) and a tagged official campaign poster of President Emmanuel Macron, candidate 'La République en marche (LREM) party are displayed on billboards next to a polling station on April 02, 2022 in Paris, France.

A damaged and torn official campaign poster of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, and a tagged official campaign poster of French President Emmanuel Macron, of La République En Marche, are displayed on billboards next to a polling station on April 2, 2022, in Paris.

Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

The outcome of France’s upcoming presidential vote is gearing up to have a major impact on European security at a time when the continent finds itself back at war. The runoff vote, scheduled for April 24, pits the incumbent centrist President Emmanuel Macron against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally party stands near the precipice of coming to power for the first time in its history.

Le Pen, well known for her unfavorable views on immigrants and minorities in France, has made nativism a core campaign message. What may end up being even more consequential for the future of the entire continent, though, is Le Pen’s warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin: the man responsible for igniting the worst conflict in Europe since the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

Since Putin launched his brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine two months ago, France has been a stalwart member of the coalition against Russia. Under Macron, it has helped build the international sanctions regime against Russia and participated in supporting Ukraine’s defense through NATO. If Le Pen, whose hostility to the European Union and sympathy with Putin are a matter of public record, comes to office, those initiatives are likely to be rolled back.

The cozy ties between Le Pen and Putin have been nurtured even as the latter has emerged as a menace to European security. In 2017, Le Pen visited the Kremlin where she criticized EU sanctions on Russia following its annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, reportedly calling the measures “unfair and silly.” She later defended Putin to French media, claiming that the annexation was legal — a dubious assertion — and reflected the will of the people of the region. Le Pen has long argued for closer ties with Russia on ideological grounds. She even came under fire for taking loans from a politically connected Russia bank to fund her party’s political operations in France.

Given Le Pen’s past, there is little reason to think that she will hold back on realigning France away from multilateral European institutions and towards Russia. Such a move would arguably be the most consequential change in the European security system since the end of World War II and would happen at a moment when Europe finds itself more threatened than ever by a resurgent Russia.

“I think that if Le Pen won, our national security would be put at stake.”

“I think that if Le Pen won, our national security would be put at stake,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and a Ph.D. candidate in comparative law at Université Toulouse 1 Capitole. “France would find itself marginalized both inside Europe and around the world. Alliances with our allies would be weakened or broken, and we would find ourselves aligning instead with undemocratic countries with whom we should not be aligning.”

She went on, “Le Pen has an ideological fascination with Putin, as well as financial ties in Russia. She’s a Eurosceptic so France would naturally lose its position as one of the leaders of the EU. If she won, we should expect that France will pay a serious price in its foreign relations.”

It is one thing for small eastern European states like Hungary or Serbia to be pro-Russia; for a major EU power like France to take such a position would be another matter entirely. Le Pen has been circumspect on specific actions, but if her expressed views guide her policies as president, France’s major alliances would be reordered under her leadership.

Like many other far-right leaders on the continent, Le Pen is hostile to the EU, describing it as a drag on France’s sovereignty. Le Pen has already signaled that she would take French troops out of NATO’s integrated command — where various national armies contribute to a force led by generals answering to the alliance. Though she has so far denied any intention to remove France entirely from NATO or the EU, observers say that Le Pen is merely biding her time until she controls the levers of power in Paris.

The skepticism of these major alliances is of a piece with her relationship to Russia. She has called for reconciliation between Europe and Putin, in stark contrast to other European leaders who have been galvanized in hostility toward Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Le Pen has pushed back against calls to cut off purchases of Russian gas, warning that such a move would be suicidal for French businesses, even while other European countries have announced plans to phase out purchases from Russia in the coming years.

Her public comments have put her well at odds with other European leaders who have maintained a nearly united front against Russia’s aggression. At a time when the unity of EU countries has been challenged in a most dramatic fashion by the war, the opportunity to break off a key member of the European alliance against Russia would be a tremendous strategic win for Putin.

A win for Le Pen could be a boon to Russia’s geopolitical aims in other, more subtle ways. French society remains heavily polarized, along not just political but ethnic lines. Le Pen’s election would be certain to heighten those divisions. Those are the sorts of dynamics actors like Russia have frequently sought to exploit toward their own ends, namely weakening Western Europe. Le Pen’s victory could give Putin an opening by cleaving France along its societal fault lines.

The opportunity to break off a key member of the European alliance against Russia would be a tremendous strategic win for Putin.

For observers like Alouane, an explosion of internal turmoil in France could push the country into the sort of right-wing politics seen, for instance, in Hungary, where pro-Putin President Viktor Orban has used reactionary politics to help solidify his hold on power.

“If she wins, there will certainly be mass protests,” said Alouane, of Le Pen. “Implementing a state of emergency in France is not difficult at this stage, and there is a real possibility that following her election we could turn into a Viktor Orban-style illiberal state.”

While Macron still has a slight lead over Le Pen in head-to-head polls, his victory is far from assured. The French would do well to recognize that not just the future of France is at stake, but also the future of Europe.