The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In the battle against Putinism, France is the new front

A man walks by campaign posters for French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right party candidate Marine Le Pen in Denain, France, on April 11. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
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By invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin precipitated two wars. The first is a bloody military conflict in his neighboring country. The second is a wider struggle for hearts and minds across Europe. That political and psychological conflict is also going poorly for Mr. Putin, as governments and peoples from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean have rejected both Russian aggression and the illiberal ideological agenda it ostensibly advances. And yet, there are weak spots: One is Hungary, whose notoriously Putin-friendly prime minister, Viktor Orban, won a fourth consecutive term in the national election on April 3. France, a far larger and more consequential pillar of both NATO and the European Union, looms as the next test case.

Sunday’s presidential election produced a runoff, set for April 24, between incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the veteran populist, far-right politician whom Mr. Macron defeated by more than 30 percentage points in 2017. Polls show a much closer race this time: Mr. Macron, who finished first Sunday with 27.9 percent of the vote, has the lead by only a few percentage points over Ms. Le Pen, who polled at 23.2 percent. Ms. Le Pen, long an anti-immigrant firebrand, has tried to rebrand herself as a moderate over the past five years, but her denunciations of Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine cannot wash away the stain of her party’s origins as the extremist National Front — or her past apologias for Moscow. A National Rally campaign leaflet distributed this year depicted her shaking hands with the Russian president, and the party funded itself with a 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank in 2014. Ms. Le Pen’s long-standing hostility to NATO is well-known; she is promising to withdraw the French military from the alliance’s command structure.

A Le Pen win, in short, would be a huge boost to Mr. Putin, symbolically and substantively. Though still unlikely, it is all too possible, ironically in part because of voter discontent over the higher food and energy costs that Russia’s invasion, and the Western response to it, have triggered. Sunday’s vote did not so much show a shift to the far right in France as a general gravitation to populists of all stripes: Ms. Le Pen was almost edged out for second place by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an ultra-leftist who is also a NATO skeptic. Derided by such foes as the “president of the rich,” Mr. Macron has an undeniably aloof and technocratic manner. But he has nevertheless done a pretty good job as president, having presided over a reduction in France’s stubbornly high unemployment rate to its lowest level in 13 years. Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Mélenchon predictably denounced Mr. Macron’s proposal to raise the French retirement age from 62 to 65 — the latter figure is standard across Europe — proving that Mr. Macron deserves credit for articulating a necessary and reasonable structural reform and sticking to it despite inevitable demagoguery.

Occupied by the Ukraine crisis and, possibly, underestimating his foes, Mr. Macron has done little campaigning so far. For the next couple of weeks, he must give his all to the electoral fight, for France’s sake and for the sake of Europe’s vital center.