French military vehicles, part of a NATO mission, are unloaded on March 29 at Tapa military base. (Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images)

— Of the four candidates with a realistic chance to become France’s next president, three oppose Western sanctions against Russia.

Two would take France out of NATO’s military command, or perhaps remove it from the alliance altogether.

And the one candidate who fits neither category would dramatically increase European defense cooperation to lessen dependence on what he regards as an unreliable United States.

When French voters make their choices Sunday in the first round of the country’s utterly unpredictable presidential race, the status quo for Western security won’t be on the ballot. Instead the election could become yet another convulsive moment for a decades-old international security order that is still wobbling from the turbulence of President Trump.


In the run-up to the vote, attention both inside and outside France has focused on the political and economic consequences of a potential Frexit from the European Union or the euro currency. With the killing of a Paris police officer Thursday night in an attack claimed by the Islamic State, proposals to close borders and aggressively crack down on domestic security threats are also at the center of debate. But the election’s impact on NATO and other elements of Western defense could be equally profound.

Victory for either the far right or the far left — candidates representing either extreme are among those locked in the four-way contest for a ticket to the second round — would mark an especially pronounced break for a country that is one of two nuclear-armed powers in Europe, with the world’s sixth-most-powerful military and a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

“It would be catastrophic — the undoing of 65 years of foreign and security policy,” said François Heisbourg, an analyst with the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research and a former defense ministry official. “This is big.” 

If there’s peril for the West, there’s opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia meddled in the U.S. election to help Trump, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. Whether Russia is interfering in the French vote is less clear. But analysts say the election undoubtedly offers another potentially disruptive moment for the West that Russia would relish — and likely seek to exploit.

“Putin would take advantage,” Heisbourg said. “The risk of war in and out of Europe would be quite high.”

Not that anyone in France has been talking about it much. 

With immigration, the economy and France’s European Union membership topping the campaign agenda, international security and defense are hardly mentioned in stump speeches. 

(Sarah Parnass,Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

To the extent that the issues are raised at all, it’s to promise a boost in spending for the country’s battle-weary armed forces. That, at least, is one area where there’s consensus among the main candidates. 

Yet on more fundamental questions that have largely been overshadowed, there are sharp disagreements — as well as promises of a radical departure. 

“No matter who wins,” a recent analysis by the London-based European Leadership Network concluded, “France’s security and defense policy will not be the same, and some candidates would bring revolutionary changes.”

The most dramatic shift would come if either the far right’s Marine Le Pen or the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon manages to pull off a win — a prospect once dismissed as anything from unlikely to impossible, but now being seriously contemplated across Europe.

Despite coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both candidates are hostile toward NATO. Mélenchon has dismissed the alliance as a Cold War “anachronism” and an emblem of U.S. imperialism that he wants France to leave behind.

Le Pen also argues that NATO’s time has passed and that France should at least abandon the alliance’s integrated command structure, if not ditch the 28-member organization altogether. 

An admirer of Trump’s, she recently took rare issue with the U.S. president when he reversed course on his earlier criticism of NATO and approvingly described it as “no longer obsolete.”

“I am coherent,” Le Pen told France Info radio in a dig at Trump and a confirmation of her own anti-NATO views. “I don’t change my mind in a few days.” 

Le Pen’s antipathy for the alliance at the heart of Western security since the aftermath of World War II appears to be rooted in her fondness for Putin.   She even went so far as to make a visit to Moscow for a personal audience with the Russian president part of her campaign last month. 

Le Pen, whose party received a 9-million-euro loan from a Moscow-based bank in 2014, has endorsed the Russian annexation of Crimea, called for a lifting of Western sanctions and proposed a new global power axis among Putin, Trump and, assuming she wins, herself. 

“A new world has emerged in these past years,” she said during her Moscow visit. “It’s the world of Vladimir Putin, it’s the world of Donald Trump in the United States, it’s the world of [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi in India, and I think that probably I am the one who shares with these great nations a vision of cooperation and not a vision of submission.”

But she’s hardly the only major candidate with pro-Russian views.

If anyone other than independent candidate Emmanuel Macron wins the vote, Putin would, at the very least, have a more sympathetic counterpart in the Elysee Palace. 

Mélenchon, for instance, has accused the West of provoking Russia with its missile-defense systems and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. He wants to lift sanctions and revive historically close Russian-French ties, while weakening links across the Atlantic to the United States.

Center-right candidate François Fillon, meanwhile, has also emerged as a sharp critic of sanctions, arguing that the measures intended to punish Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine end up hurting the French economy. 

Fillon, the subject of often-approving coverage in the Russian media, has long-standing ties to Moscow and was paid tens of thousands of dollars to arrange a meeting between Putin and a Lebanese billionaire, according to reports in the French media. His campaign has denied the allegation.

Unlike Le Pen and Mélenchon, Fillon believes in the necessity of NATO — though he has often been skeptical of it.

The only major candidate who does not favor a softer line on Russia is Macron. The 39-year-old goes out of his way in speeches to criticize Putin, knocking the leader’s well-documented reputation for political oppression and arguing that France, as the cradle of the Enlightenment, has a responsibility to speak out. 

“Do not surrender to the siren call of those who argue that our principal ally will be Russia,” he told thousands of cheering supporters at a recent Paris rally. “We’ll have to talk to Russia. But shouldn’t we be outraged when human rights are violated?”

Macron’s plans for French security policy are less dramatic than those of his rivals. But he doesn’t advocate the status quo, either. 

Instead, Macron has pushed for Europe to develop its own integrated defense networks outside the structures of NATO. It’s an idea — shared by Fillon — that has long been kicked around on the continent, but it has gained currency amid fears that Trump will withdraw or weaken the United States’ protective umbrella. 

Those fears are well-founded, said Vincent Desportes, a retired French general.

“Le Pen and Mélenchon say the defense of France needs to be French,” he said. “Macron and Fillon say the defense of France must be European.”

Common among their views is a recognition that France will need to invest more in a military left beleaguered by repeated deployments, including in Mali, the Central African Republic and the streets of Paris to guard against terrorism. 

In a sign of the times, Desportes noted, no one is arguing that the protection of France should be American.

Virgile Demoustier contributed to this report.