Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's anti-immigrant National Front, is a politician on the rise. According to a recent survey, the far-right Le Pen would come out on top if polls for France's 2017 presidential election were held today.
Her popularity is a mark both of increasing French frustration with the political status quo as well as of Le Pen's own efforts to bring her notoriously xenophobic (some would say neo-fascist) party closer to the French mainstream. Yet there are many contexts where Le Pen remains at odds with Europe's liberal consensus. One glaring case in point has to do with the continent's current bogeyman: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Relations between Moscow and the West are at a post-Cold War low, frayed by Putin's power play in Ukraine, where thousands have died during a year of clashes between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces. But Putin has vocal allies in the West, particularly among Europe's resurgent far right.
Speaking to a Polish radio station this week, Le Pen took Putin's side in the conflict, hailing Russia as "a natural ally of Europe." She said Moscow's annexation of Crimea last March ought to be recognized by European governments, stressing that the interim government in Kiev at the time "was illegal." She trotted out the Kremlin's talking points on the nature of the revolt that ousted Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last year, branding the movement as one organized by "Neo-Nazi militants."
Never mind the irony of a far-right European politician warning against neo-Nazism. Le Pen repeated claims she has made for almost a year now that Europe, when it comes to Ukraine, is behaving "like American lackeys." Le Pen sounded the gong again earlier this month: "The aim of the Americans is to start a war in Europe to push NATO to the Russian border," she said.
As WorldViews noted last year, Le Pen is hardly alone in her admiration for Russia under Putin. A whole range of right-wing and ultra-nationalist European politicians share her affection for the Russian leader, whose religious nationalism, conservative values and stated discomfort with the U.S.-authored geopolitical order all appeal to their own brand of politics.
To be sure, Putin has his backers among Europe's hard left as well, including within the government of newly elected Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. As an article in the Guardian noted this week, the Euroskeptic far right and hard left in effect give Putin a sizable bloc of support in Brussels -- roughly more than a quarter of the seats in the European parliament.
Part of this is down to political affinity -- Putin is, for many critics of the European establishment, an appealing counterpoint to the piety and dogmas of Western liberal democracy. Elsewhere, populists and wannabe strongmen all look up to the example set by the Russian president. But, as the Guardian reports, it also has to do with money.
Le Pen's National Front admitted it received a $10 million loan last year from a Russian bank. A web of far-right politicians in Europe have received some form or the other of patronage from figures within Putin's camp, including a wealthy oligarch. In former eastern bloc countries like Hungary, Russian largess is playing an increasingly prominent role in shaping both the nation's economy and its politics.
"It’s beyond irony," a senior figure in the European commission in Brussels tells the Guardian. "You can hear Putin say he had to act in Ukraine to stop fascism, while he’s financing fascists right, left, and centre all over Europe."