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Thursday, November 24, 2016

FINIAN CUNNINGHAM -- French Harbinger For Better Russian-European Ties

French Harbinger For Better Russian-European Ties
FINIAN CUNNINGHAM | 23.11.2016 | OPINION

French Harbinger For Better Russian-European Ties

France is to hold presidential elections early next year. The two main contestants both promise to bring a dramatic shift towards better Franco-Russian relations. Regardless of who actually wins the presidency, Paris and Moscow can therefore look forward to more amicable times. That, in turn, will help reorient the whole of Europe to resume a more balanced policy towards Russia, away from the futile Washington-led hostility that has, unfortunately, dominated over the past three years.
With a massive vote-lead in the first round of his party elections, Francois Fillon looks set to become the center-right presidential candidate. The second round for the presidential nomination by Les Republicains (LR) takes place this coming weekend. The good news for Russia is that Fillon brings a healthy re-balance from France’s official Russophobia, back towards an entente cordiale between the two countries.
Even better news is that Fillon’s likely presidential rival, Marine Le Pen of the Front National, is much more sanguine about fostering closer relations between France and Russia.
That means, come what may, France’s foreign policy towards Russia is in for a major shake-up following the country’s presidential elections in April-May next year. That shake-up will return Paris and Moscow to normal, friendly terms, casting aside the pro-Washington line of hostility that has marked the Socialist government of President François Hollande.

As the second biggest member state in the 28-nation European Union, a warmer relationship between France and Russia would reorient the entire bloc into a more cooperative position towards Moscow. For instance, the current raft of EU economic sanctions imposed on Russia since the Ukraine conflict in 2014 would most likely be ditched.
Francois Fillon has emerged as the clear leader in the presidential primaries for Les Republicains. In the second round of votes due this forthcoming weekend, Fillon is expected to easily beat his trailing party rival Alain Juppé. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, has told his supporters to get behind Fillon after he was trounced in the first round of voting last weekend.
Both Fillon and Juppé are former French prime ministers, but Fillon is viewed by rank and file LR party members as being the best hope to defeat FN’s Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential poll.
France’s presidential election is thus shaping up to be a two-horse race. 
The incumbent Socialist President Francois Hollande is the least popular French leader since the Second World War, with popularity ratings languishing below 10 per cent. Hollande’s economic austerity policies, overseas militarism and slavish Atlanticist following of Washington’s political agenda have combined to make any candidate from his party persona non grata in the upcoming presidential election.
The traditional leftwing French vote will also be further splintered and diminished by the announced candidacy of Hollande’s former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who is running as an «independent».
For all intents and purposes, that leaves the presidential race down to Le Pen and Fillon, assuming the latter succeeds in obtaining the LR’s nomination, which he is almost certain to do.
Now, it is increasingly conceivable that Le Pen might become France’s next head of state. Even the incumbent Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls last week conceded the possibility of Le Pen gaining the seat of power at Elysée Palace. The 48-year-old leader of the FN says, with good reason, that the historical tide is in her favor following the Brexit vote and the shock US presidential victory of Donald Trump. Both outcomes are seen as eruptions of populist, anti-establishment sentiments, which rows in behind Le Pen’s nationalistic policies. Her FN party is no longer written off as a racist, fascistic «far-right» fringe movement.
Le Pen’s vows to wrest French national power back from excessive EU administrative control and to clamp down on immigration may be considered «far right» issues, but on economic policy the FN is often seen to be more on the left than the incumbent Socialists. And in the sphere of foreign relations, Le Pen is openly critical of Washington’s overbearing influence over Europe, while also declaring her admiration and willingness to work closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Given the dire performance by pollsters and mainstream media pundits in being wrong-footed by both Britain’s Brexit referendum result to quit the EU earlier this year, and the American election this month of Donald Trump to the White House, the possibility of Marine Le Pen becoming the first French female president in the next six months is no longer a long shot. It is a fair bet.
That would add even more momentum to the electoral rise of other populist, anti-EU parties right across Europe. A common thread among these parties is their criticism of a pro-Washington Atlanticist subservience dominating European foreign policy.
The election last week of pro-Russian leaders in Bulgaria and Moldova very much resonates with the wider European shift towards rebalancing friendlier relations with Moscow instead of adhering to the Cold War-style aggression that up to now has defined EU policy as subordinate to the US. Trump’s more nationalist, «America First» politics also plays into Europe taking a more independent path.
However, even if Francois Fillon clinches the French presidency against his rival Marine Le Pen, he too will bring a remarkable improvement in Franco-Russian relations.
When President Hollande snubbed Russian leader Vladimir Putin in October by cancelling a meeting in Paris – due to French allegations of Russian violations in its Syrian military operations – Fillon was among several opposition politicians who castigated Hollande over his undiplomatic stunt. Fillon said that French dialogue with Russia was «indispensable». He has also lambasted the Western policy of Russophobia seeking to demonize and provoke Russia.
Last week, Fillon went further and called for a global coalition in the fight against terrorism which would include Russia as a partner.
When he served as prime minister in the former Sarkozy presidency (2007-2012), Fillon met with Vladimir Putin several times in official capacities, from which a cordial relationship between the two men evolved. That relationship has been maintained, with Fillon being personally greeted by Putin while attending summits in Sochi and St Petersburg.
Whether Marine Le Pen or Francois Fillon succeed in the presidential race for Elysée Palace, either way a radical shift will occur in Franco-Russian relations leading to more balanced relations not just between these two countries but between Russia and Europe as a whole.
That means an end to the futile and dangerous stand-off that has brought Russian-European relations to their lowest ebb since the heyday of the Cold War.
The French harbinger for an upturn in relations with Russia bodes well for the settling of conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, for the return to mutual economic ties, and for the transitioning towards a more peaceful multipolar world, one in which Russia will be afforded the global respect and partnership that it deserves.
Finian CUNNINGHAM
Former editor and writer for major news media organizations. He has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages

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