• Thomas Yaw Voets

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the French presidential elections, and the horseshoe theory


Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/s/photos/russia-and-ukrain


Introduction


As Russia amasses troops within Ukraine's borders - causing mass desperation, human suffering and destruction - the world's attention is, rightly, focused on its immediate consequences in areas such as migration, security, energy, and many others. Yet, its impact on the local political situation in countries such as France (where a presidential election is imminent, more specifically on 10 and 24 April), remains somewhat underexposed.

This article aims to bridge this gap, using the horseshoe theory as a theoretical basis. By looking at the positions of the main French presidential candidates regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this article seeks to examine whether the horseshoe theory holds true in this context and, on that basis, elaborate on the possible consequences for the French presidential elections

The Horseshoe Theory


In a traditional political axis, the extreme left and extreme right are treated as polar opposites on a single, straight continuum. However, French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye claimed that the extremes are, in fact, closer to each other than to the political centre[1]. He believes that the political spectrum to not be linear, but instead curved like a horseshoe - the right and left extremes of which almost meet[2]. This is known as the horseshoe theory[3].

Faye’s theory has often been derided for being (too) simplistic[4], which is why it remains rather controversial in political science and has received substantial criticism from several scholars[5].

Nevertheless, there are obvious common features among the left and right versions of populism,backed by empirical studies[6]. Hence, the horseshoe theory, in my opinion, does have merit when it comes to analysing and describing specific issues in the realm of political science. What this article will attempt to do is to discuss the candidates participating in the upcoming French presidential elections and their views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The French presidential elections - do the extremes meet in their views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine?


Although a large number of candidates have expressed interest in participating in the French presidential elections, Emanuel Macron’s main challengers this time around are: Valérie Pécresse from the centre-right; Marine Le Pen, a nationalist Eurosceptic; Eric Zemmour, who wants to “save France” from mass immigration; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a hard-left firebrand[7].


All the leading candidates have their own views and attitudes regarding Russia. Some have either openly supported closer ties with Russia, while others have avoided explicitly criticizing it[8]. However, the escalating conflict in Ukraine has forced them to clarify their positions. (Un)surprisingly, they now unanimously condemn the invasion – albeit while disagreeing on who is responsible for it[9].

Taking into account the horseshoe theory, which assumes that candidates representing the extremes on both sides of the political axis will have more in common than ones representing the center. The views of Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour and Jean-Luc Mélenchon should be more similar compared to the views of Emanuel Macron and Valérie Pécresse. But is this the case? Let’s find out.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon


Mélenchon has long had an ambiguous position on Russia and its military interventions, notably in Syria in 2015. He has called for de-escalation of the crisis since early 2022 – but has also said that he understands[10] why Russia would feel threatened by NATO moving closer to its border, and why this would result in an increase in the Russian military presence near Ukraine.[11] In addition, he has previously said French politicians “have a duty to ensure that Ukraine does not enter NATO in the East”[12] and argued Russia “is not an enemy but a partner.”[13]


Yet, in a complete turnaround, Mélenchon has condemned the invasion as a demonstration of “pure violence”, saying that Russia “takes responsibility for a terrible setback in history” by attacking Ukraine, which he argued “creates the immediate danger of a generalized conflict that threatens all of humanity.” [14] Nonetheless, having long engaged in anti-American rhetoric, Mélenchon believes it is best for France to adopt a position of non-alignment (i.e. not siding with Russia or NATO) in the Russian-Ukraine conflict[15].

Emmanuel Macron


Macron has long advocated for better diplomatic relations with Russia, seeking a new European security architecture of which Russia would be a part. Similarly, he believed he could prevent an escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine by personally engaging in diplomacy at the highest level with Putin - albeit unsuccessfully[16].


Yet, in recent weeks, Macron has continued his diplomatic efforts. As such, he has maintained diplomatic channels with Putin, hoping to broker a swift end to the conflict[17]. Nevertheless, he also consulted with his European partners in an attempt to strengthen European sovereignty, including by reinforcing NATO's easternmost borders and approving arms transfers to Ukraine[18].

Valérie Pécresse

While she remained very vague during her election campaign, Pécresse has condemned Putin’s actions and supported “really strong sanctions”[19] on Russia since the beginning of the crisis. After the invasion, she called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to ask for a ceasefire. She also said[20] that the European Union should plan how to provide humanitarian aid and defence equipment to Ukraine (as it subsequently has done).[21]

Marine Le Pen


Le Pen has long had a special connection to Russia and Putin’s regime[22]. Her party has received a Russian loan for its 2017 presidential campaign[23]. That same year, she met the Russian president in Moscow[24]. It is therefore not entirely unexpected that, when the conflict broke out, she condemned "a misunderstanding of the issues" related to the conflict – in particular from the non-Russian side[25].


However, as the conflict worsened, Le Pen about-turned, publishing a statement on her website stating there was “no reason to justify” the invasion of Ukraine, condemning it as “unjustifiable without reservations,” and called for its “immediate end”[26]. In addition, she has called for a United Nations meeting on the crisis and urged neighbours of Ukraine such as Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia to help stop the conflict. Nonetheless, she opposes any French and/or NATO military support for Ukraine, urging Macron to focus solely on the diplomatic path[27].

Eric Zemmour


Zemmour has always been heavily pro-Russia[28], having said[29] previously he “admired” Vladimir Putin as a “patriot” and called his concerns around NATO expansionism in Ukraine and Georgia “completely legitimate”[30]. Even more so, Zemmour denied that Russia would invade Ukraine, and argued that Putin’s claims were “fully legitimate”, claiming that he would lift all sanctions on Russia if he was president[31].


Since then, however, Zemmour has changed his mind somewhat and condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine[32]. At the same time, he also said that Putin had a normal reaction to decades of humiliation by the US and the West[33]. and that, "while Putin was guilty, NATO was responsible".[34]

Conclusion


If we look at the - sometimes revised - positions of the French presidential candidates with regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we see that the horseshoe theory holds true to some extent. After all, the most extreme candidates on both sides - Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour and Jean-Luc Mélenchon - all seem to retain their anti-American/NATO sentiment despite the deteriorating conflict.


Their positioning is in stark contrast to the positions of Valérie Pécresse - who favours European coordination, but regards the Americans as essential partners - and Emmanuel Macron - who once referred to the NATO alliance as 'brain dead', but now coordinates closely with his American and European partners through NATO[35].


Now, what does this mean for the French presidential elections? While it is difficult to make clear predictions, it is rather conceivable that the debate on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict (and the broader geopolitical role of France) will take centre stage in the coming weeks, and may develop into two clear camps: one camp that favours a strong EU (in the NATO context), working with its US partners; and another camp that believes in anti-imperialism, Americanism and even French non-alignment. This may - as seems to be the case now[36] - have an influence on who advances to a possible second round, resulting in a representative from both camps. And it can also affect voting behaviour in the second round, as voters with a certain sentiment may choose to side with a candidate with similar sentiment (despite different ideological positions) or prefer to stay at home (despite the same ideological positions), which can lead to an unexpected outcome. After all, none of the candidates seems to have the necessary numbers to win uncontested. Thus, victory only seems possible with the support of the other candidates' voters. Or, their failure to turn out to vote against a candidate.



References

[1] Muscato, Christopher. “Horseshoe Theory: Meaning, History & Examples.” Study.com, January 21, 2022. https://study.com/academy/lesson/horseshoe-theory-meaning-history-examples.html.

[2] Patrikarakos, David. “Could the French Far Left Propel Marine Le Pen to Victory?” The Spectator, May 3, 2017. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/could-the-french-far-left-propel-marine-le-pen-to-victory-.

[3] Muscato, Christopher. “Horseshoe Theory: Meaning, History & Examples.” Study.com, January 21, 2022. https://study.com/academy/lesson/horseshoe-theory-meaning-history-examples.html.

[4] Patrikarakos, David. “Could the French Far Left Propel Marine Le Pen to Victory?” The Spectator, May 3, 2017. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/could-the-french-far-left-propel-marine-le-pen-to-victory-.

[5] See e.g.: Choat, Simon. “'Horseshoe Theory' Is Nonsense – the Far Right and Far Left Have Little in Common.” The Conversation, May 12, 2017. https://theconversation.com/horseshoe-theory-is-nonsense-the-far-right-and-far-left-have-little-in-common-77588.; Hanel, P. H., Zarzeczna, N., & Haddock, G. (2019). Sharing the same political ideology yet endorsing different values: Left-and right-wing political supporters are more heterogeneous than moderates. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(7), 874-882.

[6] See e.g.: Van Tilburg, W. A., & Igou, E. R. (2016). Going to political extremes in response to boredom. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46(6), 687-699.; Kennedy, J. (2019). Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data. European journal of public health, 29(3), 512-516.; Kildiş, Hüseyin Pusat. “Horseshoe Theory and Covid-19.” E - International Relations, July 23, 2020. https://www.e-ir.info/2020/07/23/horseshoe-theory-and-covid-19/.

[7] “French Election 2022.” The Economist. Accessed March 4, 2022. https://www.economist.com/french-election-2022.

[8] Baume, Maïa de La. “Where Is France's Anti-Kremlin Candidate?” POLITICO, February 23, 2022. https://www.politico.eu/article/where-is-france-anti-kremlin-russia-candidate-marine-le-pen-charles-de-gaulle-valerie-pecresse/?utm_source=POLITICO.EU&utm_campaign=9e0998925d- EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2022_02_23_05_56&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_10959edeb5-9e0998925d-190525969.

[9] Drouet, Amandine, and Mathilde Ciulla. “How Russia's War on Ukraine Is Shaping the French Presidential Race.” ECFR, March 1, 2022. https://ecfr.eu/article/how-russias-war-on-ukraine-is-shaping-the-french-presidential-race/.

[10] Brunet, Romain. “Présidentielle : Comment Hidalgo Et Jadot Utilisent La Crise Ukrainienne Pour Attaquer Mélenchon.” France 24, February 23, 2022. https://www.france24.com/fr/france/20220223-pr%C3%A9sidentielle-comment-hidalgo-et-jadot-utilisent-la-crise-ukrainienne-pour-attaquer-m%C3%A9lenchon.

[11] Drouet, Amandine, and Mathilde Ciulla. “How Russia's War on Ukraine Is Shaping the French Presidential Race.” ECFR, March 1, 2022. https://ecfr.eu/article/how-russias-war-on-ukraine-is-shaping-the-french-presidential-race/.

[12] “De ‘La Menace N'existe Pas’ à ‘La Russie Agresse L'ukraine’ : Sur La Russie, Mélenchon Varie.” France Inter, February 25, 2022. https://www.franceinter.fr/politique/de-la-menace-n-existe-pas-a-la-russie-agresse-l-ukraine-sur-la-russie-melenchon-varie.

[13] Jack, Victor. “Putin's European Pals Have to Eat Their Words.” POLITICO, February 26, 2022. https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-european-pals-eat-their-words-marine-le-pen-eric-zemmour-matteo-salvini-milos-zeman-alex-salmond-gerhard-schroder-boris-johnson-jean-luc-melenchon-francois-fillon-viktor-orban/.

[14] Mélenchon, Jean-Luc. “Attaque De La Russie En Ukraine - Communiqué De Jean-Luc Mélenchon.” Melenchon.fr, February 24, 2022. https://melenchon.fr/2022/02/24/attaque-de-la-russie-en-ukraine-communique-de-jean-luc-melenchon/.

[15] Drouet, Amandine, and Mathilde Ciulla. “How Russia's War on Ukraine Is Shaping the French Presidential Race.” ECFR, March 1, 2022. https://ecfr.eu/article/how-russias-war-on-ukraine-is-shaping-the-french-presidential-race/.

[16] Baume, Maïa de La. “Where Is France's Anti-Kremlin Candidate?” POLITICO, February 23, 2022.