• 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


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 subsequ